Flying the flag for a greener world

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Europe-wide schools are encouraging children to become environmentally aware and active in recycling and cutting wastage of natural resources. Douglas Blane reports on how young Scots are turning eco-minded

Last year the Earth flexed its muscles and began to bite back, and showed us in Britain some of the downside effects of modern living, with people flooded out of their homes. Global warming, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, the mass destruction of other species (more than 20,000 a year), and the sheer mess and rubbish created by a world population of six billion are all taking a toll on the planet.

So what's to be done? We could leave it to politicians to sort out, because most of us have plenty to worry about without shouldering the global problems of the environment. But if things are so bad that only politicians can save us, we're probably doomed. There must be something ordinary people can do - and there is.

Convincing adults to change the habits of a lifetime, though, can be an uphill struggle. Getting the message across to children to be environmentally aware is more rewarding in the short term and they might even carry on the good work as they grow older to save the planet.

In a small country school on the east coast of Fife, Grace Morris, headteacher at Dunino Primary, introduces Callum Chirnside. Only six years old, he is already a champion recycler.

"I bring things into school - plastic bottles, cans, green glass - to recycle. I get them from my Gran. And my Mum gets quite a lot too, and other people."

Dunino Primary, which has fewer than 30 pupils, was one of the first Scottish schools to join an expanding, Europe-wide network known as Eco-Schools, set up to support whole-school action for the environment. So far 152 schools around Scotland have registered, signing up to the idea of moving from "environmental awareness in the curriculum to environmental action in the school and wider community". The driving force at each school is the Eco-Schools committee. Callum is Dunino's youngest member.

"We try to ensure a good spread so we always have one of the infants on the committee," explains Mrs Morris. "What I like is that it's in the ownership of the children - and not just those on the committee. At circle-time each week they bring their ideas to the rest of the school and ask what they think. Because it's the children taking the decisions, it's going to stick in their heads much more than if we just tell them. They get a sense of responsibility too, looking after the environment, and feel that their opinions are valid - which is good citizenship training, I'd say."

A variety of links can be made to the curriculum: they include forms of energy, conservation of natural resources, the importance of local and global interdependence, life cycles and recognising local plants and animals. There is extensive language work, too. "The children hold telephone conversations; they keep minutes; they send out notices of agenda; they write a recycling newsletter; they send invitations," says Mrs Morris.

But Eco-Schools is more than just an imaginative way of enhancing learning and teaching. It is as much about taking action as learning.

Scotland has more than 3,000 schools and 750,000 schoolchildren, and that number of young people has a significant impact on the environment. Schools account for a quarter of public-sector energy costs in the UK and they release into the atmosphere six to eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming) a year.

While people sometimes regard schools as a source of neighbourhood litter, Dunino is the opposite. It acts as a centre of environmental awareness, from which the message spreads via the children into the local community. Mrs Morris opens the door of a school outhouse to reveal an enormous pile of bags bulging with material from the school and local community, which are waiting to be collected by the recycling firm.

The variety of items is as impressive as the quantity: drinks cans, aluminium foil and containers, batteries, computer consumables, corks, glass of all colours, plastic bottles, containers and cups, brown paper, brown and light-coloured envelopes, light-coloured office paper, shredded paper, postcards and stamps. Newspapers are no longer on the list posted outside the school, because "nobody around here will take newspapers to recycle these days", says Mrs Morris.

On a tour of the school grounds, the Eco-Schools committee points out the garden pond, stocked with frogs, tadpoles, beetles and nobody knows how many other creatures. "We even discovered freshwater cockleshells in it," says young Ailsa.

The children point out the bird-table built by the pupils, where leftovers from lunch are recycled, the compost heap, which gets all the organic refuse the birds can't eat, the plants and shrubs chosen for their insect appeal and the well-tended grave of the school guinea pig .

As the tour draws to a close, Marissa bends down and studies what looks like a wrinkled brown leaf beside the path. Suddenly it moves, exposing the iridescent blue wing-spots that identify it as a peacock butterfly which, apart from being uncommon in Scotland, should in the depths of winter be hibernating until spring, not exploring the delights of a wildlife garden. The children take care not to stand on it as they stroll back to the classroom.

The green Eco-Schools flag fluttering above the school in a chill breeze from the sea has flown on its white flagpole for more than three years. Dunino Primary was the first mainland school in Britain to win the Eco-Schools flag, and primaries make up more than three-quarters of schools so far registered in this country. But all schools are eligible for the award and 27 secondaries are presently working towards it.

Portobello High in the heart of Edinburgh, with its 1,400 pupils based in a nine-storey glass and concrete tower block, stands in stark contrast in size, location and appearance to an attractive little village school. At Dunino Primary the environmental ethos is well established and permeates the school and local community. At Portobello High the new headteacher believes that becoming an Eco-School will bring similar benefits, and there already several school clubs with environmentally enlightened agendas. But in a big secondary, with its fragmented curriculum, shortage of time and pressure for results, it is not always obvious how to pull the existing elements together into a coherent whole-school venture.

Michael Farrell, the principal teacher of modern studies and a keen environmentalist, has called a meeting of enthusiastic senior pupils, a member of Edinburgh City Council, an environmental biologist from the school board, and the Eco-Schools officer for Scotland, Iain Bruce.

"We have to get away from the idea that this is an alternative lifestyle," says Mr Farrell. "It has to become normal; if it's not, we're in trouble."

The pupils take turns to describe projects underway or already completed. They include a survey of opinion on the school environment and suggestions for improvement, a green transport plan, the award-winning design and construction of modern bicycle sheds, the mapping of safe routes to school, the preparation of a pack to present to pupils in the school's feeder primaries, an allotment worked by the Really Wild Club and canvassing of local quarries for stone for eroded parts of the school grounds: "Several wrote back saying they could help and one offered to supply marble chips." One boy is even investigating renewable energy sources and the prospects of getting solar cells or a wind turbine fitted to the school roof.

Mr Bruce is clearly impressed by all this activity and offers suggestions based on experience at other schools. He emphasises the value of seeking advice and assistance and sharing information, with local enterprises and with Eco-Schools all over Europe. "What you need is some mechanism that allows you to pull all this great stuff together, so that agendas and actions reach everybody. A web page or e-mail system is a possibility."

Mr Farrell picks up a point that quite a few pupils made in the survey: that "if they had a nicer playground, they would care more if it got littered, or if the building was immaculate people would feel responsible for any mess they made. They're saying it's a partnership and if we show them they have a good environment, they'll respect it."

Diane Smith, the people and places officer at Edinburgh City Council, explains that for maximum impact the partnership should involve not only the school but also the wider community. "The residents around here, for example, wanted to start a campaign on litter, so some of these sixth-year pupils got on board. They managed to persuade the group that it's not all about enforcement. There has to be education and awareness too.

"Kids are the solution, not the problem."

10 astounding eco-facts

* The energy saved from recycling an average glass bottle could power a light bulb for four hours.

* For every new aluminium can that is produced, 750g of carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere. Making a recycled can releases only one twenty-fifth of this.

* The average car puts around three tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

* If every family in Britain planted one tree, about 115 million kilograms of greenhouse gases a year could be removed from the atmosphere.

* Around a million tonnes of junk mail are delivered in the UK every year. If 100,000 homes put a stop to it, 150,000 trees a year could be saved.

* White office and typing paper is recyclable but the average office worker throws away 55-70kg of it a year.

* Americans discard about four million tonnes of office paper a year, enough to build a 4m high wall of paper from New York to California.

* An average family can save up to 15,000 gallons of water a year by not leaving the tap running when doing things such as washing dishes, brushing teeth, washing the car.

* A brick in the average toilet tank will cut water use by 15-40 per cent.

* If 25 per cent of UK homes used 10 fewer plastic bags a month, that would save almost half a billion bags a year.

Facts from the Eco-Schools pack (Tidy Britain Group) and University of Kansas www.ehs.ukans.edurecyclingecotips.htm

10 steps to become an eco-school

* Contact The Tidy Britain Group, which will send introductory materials and a registration form and notify Iain Bruce, the Eco-Schools officer for Scotland. Tidy Britain GroupGoing for Green, Elizabeth House, The Pier, Wigan WN3 4EX, tel 01942 824620,

* Canvass opinion among pupils and staff: if support exists, complete and post the registration form.

* Form the Eco-Schools committee, the driving force of the project.

* Carry out an environmental review to assess where your school is now, so that you can set realistic targets.

* Identify links to specific areas of the curriculum and explore ways to extend environmental issues and awareness across the curriculum.

* Prepare an action plan, a timetabled series of specific targets developed from the results of the review.

* Inform and involve the whole school and wider community.

* Devise and display the school's Eco-code, a statement of the actions pupils and staff will take to achieve the planned objectives.

* Create a simple system for monitoring progress.

* Apply for an award and wait for visit of assessors. Get ready for award day by harvesting vegetables and flowers from the school garden or allotment.

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