The Green Gang's global view

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Today Surbiton, tomorrow the world: Stephen Hoare advocates the whole-school approach to conservation

The leafy south-west London suburb of Surbiton was the location for the long-running Seventies sitcom The Good Life, a tale of townies turning to self-sufficiency and conservation. Now, thanks to the Green Gang at St Andrew's and St Mark's Church of England junior school, Surbiton, life is imitating art.

Once a week the gang - about 20 children - meets after school to discuss ways in which they can care for the environment. Led by three committed parents, they have started a recycling bank for aluminium cans and grown vegetables organically in the school grounds. Last autumn a compost appeal brought parents struggling into school with bin-liners full of dead leaves.

But the gang's biggest achievement has been to help cut fuel bills. Between 1992 and 1993 the school reduced its energy consumption by 34 per cent, and the figure is dropping annually. St Andrew's and St Mark's is a model of whole-school energy management and features as a case study in the Department of the Environment's Introduction to Energy Efficiency for Schools (see story below).

Headteacher Geoffrey Barham is grateful for a powerful ally. "I realised that any energy conservation measures we took had to involve the children from day one. Now caring for the environment forms part of the school ethos."

The pupils' concern is obvious in the entrance hall, where the walls bristle with environmental awards and trophies. Pupils have won the Kingston-upon-Thames borough environmental achievement award eight years in a row and regional British Telecom Young Naturalist awards for the past two years. The school orchestra has been adopted by the environmental department of Kingston-upon-Thames, and plays at green events across the borough.

Geoffrey Barham became interested in energy saving five years ago when he and his caretaker attended a course on running school buildings efficiently, part of Kingston's programme to prepare schools for local management.

"That really opened my eyes to the possibilities," he said. "Bottom line savings could be ploughed straight back into paying for extra teaching materials, and our initial savings were achieved for low cost or no cost. "

This year the school will need every penny it can save, he adds: "We've got another tight budget. We have slightly fewer children going through school and we're losing some of our special educational needs money. The net result is we're down by Pounds 20,000."

Geoffrey Barham started with good housekeeping - switching lights off in empty classrooms, reprogramming heating controls and cleaning reflectors on lights. But switching heating off when not in use has produced the biggest savings, he says. "We found the system was on at the most extraordinary times, mainly because lettings out of school hours had changed but no one had thought to change the timers. Now we are constantly vigilant."

He was lucky to have some active green campaigners on his parents' committee. A whole-school approach means that everyone - pupils, staff, parents and governors - has a part to play. "As energy co-ordinator I can take a global view of what's going on in the school. The bursar manages the school budget on a day-to-day basis and draws my attention to bills and lettings. The caretaker was happy to make achieving cost savings part of his job description, and my deputy is bringing energy into the curriculum at key stage 2."

Susan Pavlis, the deputy head, who teaches science to Year 6 says: "Energy conservation is part of the teaching scheme." For Year 6 this means investigating the insulating properties of different materials. Carrying out an experiment to measure how long a cup of coffee could be kept warm when wrapped in tin foil, plastic film or Polystyrene had groups of pupils coming up with some unexpected results.

It is a top-down approach based around a clear policy statement and action plan with the children fully involved through the Green Gang and the national curriculum. Every class has an energy monitor whose duties include checking lights are not left on unnecessarily. Year 6 monitor Oliver Harvey-Jones says: "It's important to save electricity not just in schools but in offices and homes as well. It's something we can all do to help save the earth's resources. "

Geoffrey Barham believes children are very receptive to his energy-saving appeals. Every so often he uses assemblies to stoke up enthusiasm with announcements of progress that has been made towards targets and details of awards won. He says: "It is important to remind and to motivate to keep the momentum up."

The premises, built in the Seventies before much awareness of environmental issues, are a big limiting factor. There are large expanses of single-glazed, draughty windows, while low ceilings and large floor areas restrict natural light. Some corridors have no windows and have to be permanently lit.

The local education authority has helped mitigate the worst effect. It has insulated the cavity wall with foam injections and has also helped pay for sodium lighting for the hall. The boiler system was rebuilt five years ago.

Kingston's energy management unit has been hived off to a private facilities management company, Serco, which runs all council-owned buildings and negotiates energy supplies across the borough. Schools immediately benefit from its bulk-buying expertise.

Serco also controls the time settings on schools' central heating through a computerised building management system. St Andrew's and St Mark's passes on lettings information, enabling heating controls to be adjusted.

Geoffrey Barham has been able to make a few more improvements of his own with a little help from the local authority. Proving a pay-back over three years, St Andrew's and St Mark's has been able to get grants towards draught-excluder strip around doors and low-energy light bulbs in corridors. Last year it had the ceiling void above the top floor classrooms insulated and repositioned new convector radiators in three classrooms. The projects cost around Pounds 2,000 each and in both cases the school got half-funding from the local authority.

As a voluntary-aided church school, St Andrew's and St Mark's has access to another source of cash for energy-saving projects - DFEE improvement grants of up to Pounds 5,000 via the diocese of Southwark. This money has helped the school replace worn-out softwood external doors, which were ill-fitting and draughty because of lack of maintenance, with hardwood doors.

But money for these sort of improvements could soon become a thing of the past. "In real terms our Pounds 5,000 grant has remained unchanged for many years and it's a reducing resource," said Geoffrey Barham. "And energy saving is being pushed further and further down the local authority agenda as central Government support is squeezed. Unless you can say it's about health and safety you are just not going to get money."

St Andrew's and St Mark's hopes eventually to halve its original energy consumption. "We still have ideas for which we're trying to get funding, like building porches to the outside doors to prevent heat loss every time a door is opened. And we'd like to double-glaze our roof lights."


* The Energy SavingTrust, a body set up bythe Government and the major energy suppliers, is giving away Pounds 1 million to schools investing in energy savings. Called Energy Cashback, the scheme offers a rebate of up to half the cost of building works valued at up to Pounds 5,000. Schools must prove their projects will achieve energy savings of 15 per cent. Further details from Bill Roberts at the Centre for Research, Education and Training in Energy on 01942 322271.

* Yorkshire Electricity has invited the schools it supplies to join its Northern Lights campaign, aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power stations. It is also helping schools reduce their energy demands - and bills - by giving away 10,000 low-energy bulbs and offering to pay 60 per cent of the cost of installing heating controls. Further details from Jill Southward, Yorkshire Electricity, Wetherby Road, Scarcroft, Leeds LS14 3HS.

* Total Cover Gas is offering schools 24-hour emergency cover for equipment breakdown under its Gas Plus service. It also has an energy-saving advice desk. Schools using more than Pounds 1,100 of mains gas a year can switch to Total. From 1998 deregulation of the market means all schools will be eligible. Further information on Freephone 0500 645500.

* The Association for Science Education can supply materials relevant to energy education, including Managing Energy, which involves secondary pupils in energy-saving decisions. ASE, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA 01707 267411.

* The HMSO series Managing School Facilities includes guides on Saving Water and Saving Energy, at Pounds 3.95 each.

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