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Role reversal and the three green Rs

The role of young people in local decision-making was stressed at the Rio Summit. One borough is showing how councils can take up the challenge. Julian Agyeman reports. Where do the 22,000 kilograms of rubber bands used by the Royal Mail in the South-East each year come from and go to? How can Marks and Spencer raise customer awareness of its recycling policy? And how can British Gas reduce the impact of staff travel and street excavations on the environment?

These are some of the nine "challenges" being thrown down by Croydon council, in partnership with local businesses, to the borough's schools. It is hoped that the schools' answers will be acted on by the businesses, and will form a part of the council's developing Local Agenda 21: an ambitious local policy agenda for "sustainable development" into the 21st century.

But what is sustainable development? It is one of those buzz-phrases which many use, but fewer understand. Essentially it means that we should: * stay within the carrying capacities of the environment while striving to improve the quality of life for all

* provide children with environmental and other opportunities which are equal to or better than those available to us

* increase the war on poverty and develop an equitable and socially just society

* integrate environmental policy objectives with social, economic and cultural policies

* adopt the "precautionary principle". This means not carrying out any activity whose environmental impacts we are not certain of, until we are certain.

Local Agenda 21 and sustainable development have not yet gained a high profile in schools. But this will change. Most of the 541 local authorities in the UK are gearing up for it and, as in Croydon, it is moving quickly to the forefront of local authority thinking.

Croydon council rightly sees young people's participation in the process as vital. Indeed, young people were identified as an under-represented group in environmental decision-making in Agenda 21, the 40-chapter, 500-page action plan for global sustainable development which was the main outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

As part of Croydon's Environment Challenge, they are being invited both to come up with answers, and to use their raised awareness to develop a vision of their neighbourhoods and borough for the 21st century.

This community visioning process is taking place in local authorities in the UK, and in more than 150 other national signatories to Agenda 21. The rhetoric of Local Agenda 21 states that "each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organisations and private enterprises and adopt a Local Agenda 21". Developed around the notions of consultation, consensus and partnership, Local Agenda 21s, which should be completed by December 1996, are essentially community plans for sustainable development.

The Croydon Environment Challenge represents an innovative attempt to engage young people in the quest for sustainable development. Starting in September, and finishing in an Environment Challenge Festival in July 1996, it will provide opportunities for a different approach to learning, both in school and in the community. The aim is to encourage co-operation and collaboration among young people, teachers, specialists in businesses, the council, and members of the local community in tackling local environmental and sustainability issues, thereby helping to curb environmental degradation on the global scale. It is also an opportunity for young people to raise their expectations and achievement and increase their own - and other people's - awareness of environmental and sustainability issues.

The Challenge is the brain-child of advisory teacher for science Ken Miller, with support from the borough's Local Agenda 21 project officer, Barbara Wilcox, other advisory staff and the Croydon Education Business Partnership. It will involve young people in a variety of activities, including information gathering, site visits, research, presentations, designing publicity materials and displays, and organising events. Different activities will fit into different key stages, and into post-16 provision.

Young people and their teachers will decide which of the nine individual company challenges to undertake, and these will take in aspects of the curriculum, including business studies, English, science, religious education, geography, maths, information technology, design and technology and art.

"The strength of Croydon's Environment Challenge is that young people are being trusted to develop their environmental skills to do real jobs which would normally be done by professionals," says Ken Miller.

United Artists Communications has taken this message to heart in its Three Rs Challenge - reduce, recycle, re-educate. They want young people at key stage 34 and post-16 GNVQ to re-educate their staff to reduce the amount of paper used in their Croydon offices. This will entail a paper consumption audit; a survey of current recycling practice; selecting and developing solutions and developing a staff re-education programme.

After the challenge has been completed, they want the young people to come back and undertake a post-implementation audit and evaluation.

The company will also provide link staff, communication tools, an environmental psychologist, expert project managers and access to decision-makers at a senior level. It has pledged to assess and use some or all of the ideas as a blueprint to implement the Three Rs Challenge throughout its UK operations.

Eager to take up this Challenge is Coloma Convent, whose head of IT, Mary Griffin, says: "The girls will learn to treat finite resources with care. Being set in a business context, this Challenge offers them great scope to work with adults other than teachers in solving real life problems."

The opportunities for schools to define their own ways to participate in Local Agenda 21 are vast. Barbara Wilcox sums up this role: "At the recent launch of Croydon's Local Agenda 21, the most poignant moment was a drama performed by three 15-year-olds, who left the audience with the thought 'will you help us . . . please?'"

* Teachers interested in getting involved should contact their own authority - usually planning, environmental services, environmental health or chief executives departments - or contact the National Local Agenda 21 officer, Jane Morris, at the Local Government Management Board. Tel: 01582 451166 for further details

Julian Agyeman is an environmental communications consultant.

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