Raymond Ross reports on how one school plans to help save planet Earth
Is Scotland doing as much as it can to protect the environment? Not according to pupils at one Edinburgh school.
S2 students at Queensferry Community High voted overwhelmingly against such a motion in a debate which formed part of a whole-school environmental awareness project, culminating in Our Planet Day at the end of last month.
The arguments underlined how environmentally aware young people can be, ranging from the broader issues of nuclear power, recycling and wind farms down to the nitty-gritty stuff of more local politics.
Promoting buses is all very well, but the Queensferry service is not actually that good, says one pupil. Not enough townspeople volunteer for environmental projects, pipes up another. One asks, will Edinburgh's new tram system really be energy-efficient, while yet another complains the council doesn't supply enough recycling bins. "And have you ever noticed how the recycle uplift trucks actually leave lots of smashed glass lying around?"
Local relevance and irreverence are often the hallmarks of school debate and this one was no different, with one young contributor from the floor pointing out that, although most pupils had followed the suggestion that they walk or cycle to school that morning as a way of starting off Our Planet Day, the teachers' car park still seemed rather full ...
Planning the day began at the start of the session and class preparation took place over the summer term.
"In keeping with the philosophy of A Curriculum for Excellence, every department has been involved and the work has been embedded in the curriculum," says Robert Birch, the headteacher.
"Departments sparked ideas off one another, with teachers visiting each others' classrooms in preparation. As a result, every Planet Day class that pupils attend has direct relevance. It's good for staff morale, with everybody sharing in the same project, and the pupils have been very excited about it," he says.
The idea for the day originated with school librarian Diana Wild, who is in charge of cross-curricular events, and it is part of a pilot for Learning and Teaching Scotland, Sustainable Development.
"Our cross-curricular project 'Our Planet: a thoughtful approach' emphasises the fact that students should be aware that there are different viewpoints on environmental issues, and that they should be considering these," she says.
"When I heard former education minister Peter Peacock say that a copy of Al Gore's environmental film An Inconvenient Truth should be sent to every school, I thought 'That's one-sided'. I wanted pupils to question what they were watching or hearing, so I included the controversial Channel 4 broadcast The Great Global Warming Swindle.
"We want pupils to be thinking about the issues. Is global warming for real? What are its causes? What role does big business play? Why are eco-schools being promoted? Are wind farms all good?
"Most young people know about global warming and are possibly even fed up with it. So the idea was to involve them at a critical level," she says.
The involvement was certainly comprehensive. S3 chemistry looked at fossil fuels, causes and cures of pollution; S5 home economics considered food and flower air miles and their impact; S1 music students produced and filmed "raps" on environmental issues; S4 physics and geography together looked at the impact a nuclear power station in south Queensferry might have; S2 biology put genetic engineering under the microscope; and S2 religious education looked at "Peace on Earth", considering the Gaia Theory that the organic and inorganic components of planet Earth have evolved together as a single living, self-regulating system.
Local relevance was very much to the fore in the maths department. With a new Forth Bridge crossing on the horizon, S1 pupils had looked at the engineering proposals for the new bridge and the structure of the two existing bridges. They had to consider design, environmental impact and budgets, and on Our Planet Day they set about constructing their own bridges in a group competition. Using straw, string, cards and tape - and whatever materials they had brought to school that day - they had to construct a metre-long bridge between desks, over which a toy car could pass safely, and their constructions were judged on design, appearance, build quality, use of materials and strength.
Co-ordinating the whole-school project alongside Ms Wild was modern languages teacher Fabien Desse, for whom it has been a positive learning curve.
"As a probationer, cross-curricular projects are new to me. It's been great getting all the departments on board with everyone pulling together. In a sense, it was about co-ordinating a lot of good work that was already going on," he says.
"In S3 Spanish we are looking at water shortages in South America. In S2 French we are making posters about the living earth with a lot of vocabulary work involved; and in S2 German the pupils produced a storm weather forecast and a play which we filmed."
Also new to cross-curricular project working was student drama teacher Gillian Howie. Using stark and emotive images drawn from the work of famous Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, her S4 pupils developed a series of short dramas which were produced on the day.
"At first, the pupils found Salgado's striking photographs a little depressing - well, some of them can be quite upsetting - but then they saw common ground. They began to discuss what makes us all happy or sad and began to pick up on the thread of common humanity.
"We then mind-mapped ideas for drama and they created scenes ranging from the musical to the docu-drama," she says.
Visiting teachers from Kenya were in the audience and clearly took to the plays, which included one about a young Kenyan dancer coming to the UK to pursue her career. It looked at Third World poverty, dreams and ambition, as well as the trials and tribulations of emigration and immigration, with other short plays focusing on child labour, orphanages, families and adoption.
There was certainly a buzz about Queensferry CommunityHigh on Our Planet Day. Pupils entering school put stars on a photograph of Earth in the reception area to show they were thinking about the planet, while the plasma screen next to it was showing some of the music, drama and other class work that had been going on for weeks to prepare for the big day.
Teachers were clearly enthused and spoke of the day as a launch-pad for other whole-school activities, rather than an end of process.
English teacher Joel Caldicott organised the S2 school debate, not only for Our Planet Day but also to help establish public speaking in the school. For him, this was a stepping stone towards promoting debating as part of the curriculum. An in-school debate on Scottish Independence is already on the cards.
No Scottish school project considering Scotland's impact on planet Earth would be complete without some mention of the "Man of Independent Mind", Robert Burns.
S2 pupil Roddy Lyle won the history department's S1-3 essay competition on "The Most Significant Scot to Walk the Earth", choosing the Bard from his other choices of Sir Alex Ferguson, Robert the Bruce, Rod Stewart and William Wallace.
In his winning entry he writes: "Burns is well known round the world for his poems and songs. We can see this very clearly because of the amount of statues and memorials placed all round the world ... Burns has had his face on stamps and pound notes many times ... Countries as far ranging as the old Soviet Union have a connection with Burns because of the sentiment of his poems and songs, such as 'A Man's a Man for A' That', which means it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from or how much money you earn, you are still just a man."
A significant sentiment, surely, for Our Planet Day.