Are we doomed to a disempowered life in a wasted world? Kevin Berry explains how celluloid visions of a nightmare future are helping pupils realise the importance of sustainable development
Watching the techno-dazzle and nihilist violence of comic book films such as Robocop might seem a strange way to start thinking about the preservation of the planet, but a north-west comprehensive has found it an ideal way to introduce concepts of sustainability.
In personal, social and religious education lessons, pupils at Royton and Crompton School, Oldham, watch snatches of blockbuster movies and some pessimistic and optimistic videos, before being told to rate the environmental importance of a set of issues.
"This is probably the first generation to believe the future will be worse than the present," explains history teacher, Clive Belgeonne. "What images are children getting? Robocop? Terminator? They see disempowered people in an alien environment and big corporations taking over."
His job as a sustainability co-ordinator for the school is to ensure the children know it doesn't have to be like that - that the future is not something that just happens, that they can play a part in making it different.
His message seems to be getting through. When the pupils in the Year 10 PSRE class responded to their challenge, the suggestion by one student that education had only a bit part to play in saving the environment was carefully countered by another. Andrew Peers stressed that education was a means of informing and explaining, and not simply about going to school.
Education is at the heart of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit commitment to "sustainable development" - improving the quality of life without destroying the environment or its capacity to renew itself. This means making choices and judgments based on awareness of possible environmental damage. Education is crucial to raising that awareness.
Royton and Crompton provides a model of how a school can help this message permeate all of its activities. Indeed, the school has been given Pounds 6,000 over two years by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) under its Curriculum Management Awards scheme to promote Education for Sustainability and to provide resources and expertise to other teachers and local people.
Sustainability is boldly written into Royton and Crompton's school policies and development plans, influencing citizenship lessons, the move to independent learning, the anti-bullying policy, and more.
The underlying principle is about the shaping of an empowered future, giving children the right to be involved and make choices. An active and powerful school council has introduced lockers, the canteen group politely demanded a change from disposable cutlery, and got it, landscape contractors were asked: "Do you really have to spray here?" The anti-bullying councillors are children, who have attended a training course. Headteacher Jeanne Watson stresses the children must be "calm and resourceful".
History lessons focus on quality of life in the Middle Ages and compare it with other periods. English teachers offer a project on blood sports. And technology students look at the economic and environmental cost of recycling. The approach is not so much about collecting waste, but asking why we make so much of it.
But not everyone in the school has seen the light. The two sustainability co-ordinators - Mr Belgeonne and Rachel Naylor, a science teacher - talk of "the drip effect" and "building cells of interested colleagues". They want to shift debate away from the content of lessons and move to the form of teaching, but they want volunteers and they will not exert pressure.
Sustainability is not an extra for an already overloaded profession, they maintain. It is a fresh approach. But Ms Naylor does warn of the danger of overkill with a subject cynics have come to regard as twee and very Blue Peter.
There was already much good practice in the school and a favourable management team supported the bid for WWF funding, recognising the value of a meeting between two sympathetic agendas concerned with developing active, independent citizens.
Royton and Crompton is not just a green oasis. The children's influence is felt throughout the local community and the town, through links with the environmental task force the Groundwork Trust, and Oldham's planning department. They are keen to ensure more people know about local initiatives - Oldham Council offers free wormeries, for breeding those little red worms that help rotting in compost heaps, as well as compost bins, but the take-up is hardly encouraging. People still throw away plastic bottles, rather than put them in the recycling bins; people still do not know cat fur combings can be used by local chemical companies to make vaccines.
Some of the school's pupils were asked to sit on Oldham's environmental forum, but one councillor launched into an angry tirade, blaming school children for most of the litter in the town. "It was offensive," says pupil Hayley Batty, 17. "They wanted youth to be involved but they were discrediting us. It's going to be our place in ten years. We've got to know what to do now. Anyway, " she adds, "now we have our own youth forum and we are on the environmental forum and adults do listen to us."
Children are also involved with the manning of an Agenda 21 consultation caravan in the town. One student from the school was chosen to go to the United Nations in New York to speak at a youth forum on issues raised at the Rio summit. But it is not just the brightest and the best who are benefiting from the encouragement of independent thinking. Teacher Helen Brookes tells of one golden moment when she had been tackling the grassland versus rainforest issue. She asked the children what they were going to do about it. One boy, who finds lessons a struggle, said: "I'll just stop eating cow."
"Wow!" she beams. "The concepts he'd dealt with to get that out."
An encouraging aspect of the sustainability ethos is what is becoming an annual visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology in north Wales. It acts as a learning experience for the 12 teachers and 18 pupils who visit at a time - though one teacher admitted to "stage fright" at the thought of using a compost toilet.
Back in the school canteen, the green group, a busy bunch of committed volunteers, explain how disappointed they are at the lack of wholehearted support from the "much too busy" parent generation. Grandparents, though, are exempted from criticism. "My gran gets all her friends organised with newspaper collections and things like that," says Megan Greenwood. "But it's not directly affecting them. They realise they are at the end of their lives and want to do good for the earth."
Details of applications for WWF's Curriculum Management Award will be published in September's WWF magazine Lifelines, which is sent to staff rooms.
WWF education dept, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GV7 1XR, tel: 01483 426444, fax: 01483 426409.
Highly recommended guidelines on sustainability are obtainable from The Local Government Management Board, 76-86 Turnmill Street, London EC1M 5QU, tel: 0171 296 6600.
Clive Belgeonne and Rachel Naylor can be contacted at Royton and Crompton School, tel: 01706 846474, fax: 01706 842874
Sustainability in the classroom - how schools are showing the way
Teachers involved with the World Wide Fund for Nature's Curriculum Management Award scheme believe environmental education must embrace sustainability, encourage independent thinking and give children a voice in their future. Education for Sustainability can enhance most areas of the curriculum but it is not a bandwagon. It is a vitally important change of emphasis. Activities run by schools involved in the scheme include: * At Fallibroome High School, Macclesfield, Cheshire, the impetus for a changing perspective came when members of the local community mistakenly blamed children for litter in the town. Sustainability co-ordinator Carol Martin was adamant it was not her job to train litter-pickers, but the school had to educate children, make them aware of issues and choices and put sustainability into the curriculum. Year 8 drama students have to put themselves on a desert island and decide how to develop it. It is a traditional economics versus sustainable lifestyle argument. Another drama situation concerns huge out-of-town shopping centres. The school's recycling activities are encouraged as a habit, and not simply a special event.
* Ridgeway Primary, in Chasetown, Staffordshire, has a committee of children and adults, including ancillary staff, with each class represented. The school has installed dual-flush toilets, its committee has organised a community-wide litter pick and the caretaker does not bury the school's waste paper after the end of term clear out. Instead, it is gathered for recycling so there is little for the bin men to take away.
Jane Mason, sustainability co-ordinator, says aluminium cans are also collected for recycling, but the school tries to encourage the children not to use them in the first place by providing a range of drinks in bottles and glasses, something schools that offer only water ought to consider. For this reason it was decided that a can collection competition in the town simply did not fit in with the sustainability ethos.
* At Prudhoe Community High School, in Northumberland, 16 enthusiasts are taking the environmental science A-level. A party from the school, led by John Hartshorne, the sustainability co-ordinator, is preparing for an ambitious month-long project in South America, helping with reforestation in a remote part of Venezuela before going on to one of the big cities to work with street children.
Information on the full range of Prudhoe school's environmental projects is available from its web site address - http:www.prudhs. demon.co.uk e.mailscience1prudhs.demon. co.uk