Five years ago I knew very little about climate change. I certainly had no idea how I might incorporate energy saving into our school, nor any notion of how to involve schoolchildren in reducing our carbon footprint. Most people know of the Eden Project and the work it does. But how do we incorporate those sorts of lessons into school?
In 2006, while studying for a degree in school business management, which included a unit focused on the environment and how to reduce CO2 emissions, I had a eureka moment. The unit also looked at how to introduce sustainable development into schools. I was hooked.
I based my dissertation on how to become an eco-school and in 2007, with the support of the British Council, I spent a week visiting schools in Slovenia that had achieved the National Eco-Schools Green Flag Award. I was particularly struck by one school that had worked with a local company to make beautiful dishes from recycled glass and sold them to raise funds for the school.
When I returned to Britain I wrote an action plan for my own school - St Columb Minor Academy, a primary with 480 pupils near Newquay in Cornwall - setting out ways in which we could become more sustainable. I looked at energy, waste and developing global links with schools in other countries to share learning on climate change.
`We appointed energy monitors in each class'
The first step was to reduce our energy use. We asked teachers and pupils to make energy- saving pledges, from closing doors at break times to keep the heat in to opening blinds to allow in natural light. Pupil enthusiasm rose further when we appointed energy monitors in each class.
These may seem like absurdly simple measures, but in the first year alone they saved us about 20 per cent on our usual pound;8,000 annual electricity bill.
In 2008 we installed two forms of renewable energy: a 6kW wind turbine and 6kW of solar thermal panels to heat the water for our kitchen and our Year 6 classes. A year later we installed an array of 13kW solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and in 2011 we added a further set of 9.9kW solar PV panels. These were funded by government grants in 2008 but since 2011 we have funded them from the school's budget.
Initially, we saved 37 per cent on our annual energy expenditure. This has now settled at about 10 per cent as we have enlarged our school building and increased our IT resources to provide for a growing number of pupils.
Just as importantly, though, sustainability and issues relating to climate change are now integrated into all teaching. We also use the international primary curriculum to link to host countries such as Peru and India to compare the impact each school has on the environment.
As well as running sustainability conferences for schools across Cornwall, in 2010 we decided to part-fund the installation of solar thermal and solar cookers in a school in Peru, our host country for our Year 3 classes. Pupils love writing and talking to the children in Peru. It has helped them to learn about another culture and understand different ways of living and working at school and at home. At the same time, our children have shared their learning on how to become a "greener school".
In 2010 we won a school award from green-energy charity Ashden, and in 2011 I became one of the first two mentors for Ashden's LESS CO2 sustainability programme for schools. I now advise 16 schools across the region and hold several half-day workshops for teachers each year. These cover all aspects of energy saving, from recording meter readings and monitoring energy use to developing policies and practices, as well as exploring carbon-saving options. In between the workshops I provide additional mentoring to the eight Cornish schools participating in the programme.
`Early results have been impressive'
I have been amazed at the enthusiasm shown by teachers and early results have been impressive. Schools report saving an average of pound;5,000 in their first year, and one secondary school, Queen Elizabeth's Community College in Devon, saved pound;16,000 in a year, cutting 20 per cent of the college's electricity bill.
Some exciting initiatives have aimed to further involve pupils - and change their behaviour, too. Pupils at Launceston Primary School started a traffic light system to reward behaviour change. Classrooms are checked and graded with green, amber or red lights; the school has cut 10 per cent of its electricity bill as a result. Pupils are more aware of climate change and the impact it is having at home and abroad.
It is now something of a mission for me to keep the momentum going - not just among schools but in my own life, too. At first my family was a little sceptical and teased me that I had become an unlikely eco-warrior. But slowly I have won them round.
The greatest delight, however, has been encouraging young children to believe that they can protect and change the world we live in, and watching their growing pride as we help them learn how to do so.
Gill Harper is business manager at St Columb Minor Academy in Cornwall, which won an Ashden School Award in 2010 for its work to build an energy- saving culture in the school. She is now a mentor for the LESS CO2 sustainable schools programme. Find out more at www.ashden.orgless-co2
Teach pupils about global warming, climate change and the greenhouse effect using lbearss' PowerPoint-based resource.
Explore some responses to and causes and effects of climate change in these lesson activities from LauraLovesGeog.
And try the TES collection of environmental teaching resources.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headlne: The school turning over a new leaf