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Talk leads to action

From imagining they are the captain of a grounded tanker to exploring energy consumption in school: primary children can join the on-line debate, says John Spooner

Captain Milly refused to accept responsibility when her oil tanker ran aground off the Galapagos Islands. "I was not drunk or going too fast," she explained. She argued that the fault lay with the owners, builders and regulators who expected her to sail a ship that was "30 years old, only had one single hull and was not inspected before we left port". Milly is one of the many children who have participated in WWF's on-line events for primary schools and role-play is one of the techniques used to help pupils explore sustainability issues. Milly was able to exchange ideas with both real-life and role-playing tanker captains, oil company executives, tanker operators, community leaders, government officials, wildlife experts, and journalists.

The "live" section of the debate lasts for two weeks and during this time the children engage in on-line discussion with experts and other pupils from the UK and abroad as they seek to complete a series of tasks. The final phase encourages schools to take action based on the work they've just completed.

Schools are invited to post examples of their work on a dedicated website which also provides resources for further study. These debates are moderated to ensure safety. The website is restricted to registered schools. (Register free at One of the issues explored in the 2004 Sustainable Schools on-line project was energy. Heaney class stated that "Solar panels are the right choice to make because you can sell the excess energy back to the National grid. We think that a wind turbine may cause birds and bats to be killed." Moses class argued that "The advantages of wind turbines outweigh the disadvantages," and Philip and Justine thought it was "OK to use wind turbines because it's a natural resource and there's a safety policy for birds". The Centre for Sustainable Energy provided expert advice and the moderators asked pupils to consider the effects of the use of fossil fuels on birds and bats. Pupils were referred to a school with its own wind turbine (

This year's event, The Very Hungry School, goes live from November 7 to 18 and uses a version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar story to explore issues of consumption. Pupils will engage in literacy and numeracy activities and explore the environmental consequences of the use of water, energy, transport and food by schools and the wider community. They'll take part in role-play with characters from the Very Hungry School, conduct audits and exchange ideas with pupils from around the world and experts from Sustain, The Centre for Sustainable Energy, The Green Shop, Rainharvesting Systems, Sustrans, Waste Watch, and WWF.

Pupils will use ecological footprinting to measure the environmental impact of their consumption of natural resources. They need to realise that 330ml of sugared water is not all they consume when they empty a can of fizzy drink.

The Bauxite used in the aluminium can was probably mined in Australia, smelted in Sweden, rolled in Germany and finished in the UK. The manufacture and transportation of this product is linked to the use of fossil fuels, the construction of factories, atmospheric pollution, pesticide use, and the creation of waste. A good starting point is Where's the Impact?, a resource from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales (see page 12) which encourages pupils to think about the life history of a product and consider how each stage contributes to its ecological footprint.

More activities dealing with the issue of consumption are at: Spooner is a writer and former primary teacher

Energy Fact Box

* There are approximately 9.8 million pupils, 10,200 schools, 60 million people and 22 million households in the UK.

* The average school could save pound;17.85 per pupil per year by introducing energy efficiency measures.

* Approximate household energy savings: low energy light bulbs pound;7 per bulb per year; cavity wall insulation pound;100 per year; boiler jackets pound;15 per year; double glazing pound;40 per year; drawing the curtains pound;15 per year; thermostatic radiator controls pound;60 per year.

* It takes 0.4 kilowatts of energy to treat and pump each cubic meter of water that is delivered to a school or household. The average school uses 5.25 cubic metres of water per pupil per year, the average householder uses 135 litres per day.


1. Use information from the website below to draw a diagram showing the life history of an aluminium can. Design symbols that indicate how each stage contributes to the ecological footprint of this product. The following symbols are required:

* Bioproductive land (sugar and water) * Built and degraded land (mines, roads, factories, shops, landfill sites, incinerators)

* Energy land (to absorb CO2 from energy used in transport, smelting, rolling etc).

Pupils should use different sizes of symbol to represent different levels of impact.

2. Study the environment agency footprint calculator. Why do certain answers result in larger ecological footprints than others? Create an action plan to reduce your ecological footprint at home and at school.

3. One of the ways of reducing ecological footprints is by reducing energy consumption. Use the Energy Fact Box (left) to create calculations which illustrate the link between saving energy and saving money. Identify and collect any additional information that you need. Select the most appropriate data for the following: a leaflet to householders; a briefing for school governors; a letter to a local council or government minister.

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