Environmental education was already a strength when, in 1983, with the closure of the local colliery, we recognised that the two mining villages we serve needed a new sense of purpose. We chose environmental work not just for its own value but for the opportunities it provides to stimulate and motivate children in other areas of learning. The "greening" of a school needs stamina. Our present position has been reached after 30 years of persistence.
Children need to enjoy their environment, and to be inspired and amazed by its complexity if they are to grow up to be engaged and concerned. We encourage their suggestions and are prepared to get our hands dirty carrying out the plans. Using local issues (even contentious ones), we show children how they can influence others through debate and campaigns. Our children have presented to the county council, questioned their MP and given their views in the House of Commons.
In keeping with the belief that even the longest journey begins with a single step, we have attempted to become a sustainable school in every way possible. This process started on the school field more than 30 years ago.
Many of our parents can still identify the trees they planted. We now have more than 30 species, an excellent resource for science and art work. The field has a secret garden with sculptures and a story-telling chair, an organic vegetable plot, a beautiful pond and a community recycling centre.
In 1998, Durham County Council - as part of its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions -with Northern Electric was looking to promote renewable energy projects. An 18.5-metre, 50-kilowatt wind turbine was built in our school field. Our role was to develop the educational potential. In 2003 we replaced our old oil boiler with one burning locally produced recycled wood pellets that would otherwise go to landfill. And this summer we installed solar panels, using grants from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Power Green Energy Trust.
Links with a remote rural school in West Pokot, Kenya, (part of a British Council global schools partnership) have added a potent human dimension to our work. Our twin village has no water or electricity, and is at the hungry, fragile edge of a semi-arid area. People our children have come to know from letters, photographs and exchange visits are in the front line if the world becomes warmer.
Our work, the turbine in particular, has attracted much interest and many visitors. In 2002 we launched a service for regional schools, Cassop Environmental Extra. We applied for grants, and looked for partners in industry to provide the equipment needed to offer a structured educational experience for visitors. Gradually, we have picked off parts of our plan and can offer a menu of activities, and environmental work.
Children can generate electricity using a simple copper coil and magnet.
They make miniature wind turbines, and small photovoltaic cells using glass slides and chemicals.
But sustainability is also about having the imagination to project forwards to possible consequences of actions. Our aim is always to leave children with the challenge: how can I make a difference? Who can I persuade to make a difference? To ensure our sustainability as a project, and to move to our next phase, the school is urgently seeking a partner from industry or a creative way to "buy" time to use with visiting schools. Offers or ideas are welcomed.
Jim McManners is headteacher of Cassop primary, County Durham (www.cassopschool.org.uk)