By helping the environment, schools can save money as well as the planet, argues Alan Woods, so why aren't they doing more?
I have often wondered why schools bother with decorations at this time of year. Most are lit up like a Christmas tree, anyway. And when you add the skip full of rubbish outside the building, the litter-strewn playgrounds and queue of cars at home time, you would be excused for thinking that teachers, children and parents couldn't care a jot about the environment.
It is strange, especially when you consider how much younger kids, in particular, care about issues such as protecting wildlife. Unfortunately, environmental education at home and school is lacking, and, for some children in urban areas, green spaces are disappearing fast.
According to a recent survey, the majority of adults still see environmental protection as important. But they have become cynical, believing the myth that those who care for the planet are hippies, loonies or anoraks and that environmentalism is extreme rather than mainstream.
They are too busy to worry about rubbish and, besides, the rainforests are a million miles from here, aren't they?
Protecting the environment, however, is no longer a choice - it's a necessity. And we are not just talking about freak weather conditions or dwindling natural resources. Litter, dog fouling, graffiti and vandalism damage our neighbourhoods and heighten the fear of crime. And every time we get in our car to make that short journey to school, we not only pollute the air our children breathe, we also stop them from walking. No wonder so many are asthmatic or obese.
As organisers of Eco-Schools, the largest environmental education programme in Europe, we believe that the most effective way of solving these problems is by starting at school. But just before busy teachers run for the barricades screaming, we have some good news for you. Learning about the environment is not only easy, it is worthwhile for your pupils and the school's coffers.
UK schools spent pound;56 million last year on getting the bins emptied and wasted pound;158 million on stationery. Yet, by reusing old folders or photocopying on both sides of the paper, you could slim your bin and slash your bills. And while this may sound obvious to some, using items such as yoghurt pots or egg cartons in art lessons stops them ending up in the rubbish bin.
Two of our Eco-Schools, Grosvenor grammar school in Belfast and Raglan school in the London borough of Bromley, have gone the extra mile by installing recycling facilities. There is still a market to sell items such as tin foil and you would be surprised at how many councils will back you when you install a bank - after all, you are helping them hit strict government targets on reducing rubbish.
The tab for clearing up litter is a hefty one, weighing in at pound;39 million a year. Secondary school pupils recently told the Keep Britain Tidy campaign that their grounds are swamped with rubbish because there are not enough bins and lessons on the subject are "boring". They also said that teachers sometimes set a poor example by punishing kids inconsistently and dropping litter themselves. By taking a good look at these issues, we could make a dent in the problem, save ourselves cash and make our schools a more pleasant place for all.
"Spend now or pay later" is the motto when it comes to water and electricity, too. Instead of shelling out pound;106 million on water, you could replace worn washers on taps, fit flush controls on toilets and restrict the watering of school grounds. By turning the thermostat down in class by one degree, you can also reduce heating bills by 10 per cent. For every pound;3 spent on heating in schools, pound;1 is lost through bad insulation, so why not look at this, tune the boiler and fit energy-saving light bulbs?
Apart from the fiscal benefits, getting involved gives new skills. Because Eco-Schools asks pupils to manage the project, it encourages a sense of responsibility, engenders teamwork and, since they are learning about how their actions affect others elsewhere, teaches them about the world. It rewards those who make their mark at bronze, silver and green-flag level, boosting self-esteem.
But the best thing about environmental education is that it is infectious.
For every Eco-School in the UK, there is a network of kids nagging parents, friends and neighbours to do more. They recognise that caring for the environment is not only important - it is simple and anyone can do it.
So make it a new year's resolution to get your school involved. You will be saving money - and saving the planet, too.
Alan Woods is chief executive of Encams, which runs Eco-Schools in the UK (www.eco-schools.org.uk.), as well as the Keep Britain Tidy campaign.