Sustainability may be a 21st century buzzword, but turn the clocks back 15 years and few were talking seriously about separating waste or composting. After years of tireless campaigning, however, students across the UK are striving to become the next generation of eco warriors.
Teachers are taking the back seat and supporting children in generating their own ideas for improving the places in which they learn and live, whether that’s clearing litter from the playground or cultivating the school’s green spaces.
It’s not just about giving students a fun, hands-on learning experience. By providing children with ownership of a project, they value it much more, explains headteacher Kate Nash.
Her school, Silverhill Primary in Derby, has been developed over the years to create two outdoor learning areas – one for sports and another for teaching biodiversity. The latter now includes a permaculture garden, a wildflower meadow and a pond – projects all led by students.
Students also play a vital role in reducing the school’s carbon footprint and, importantly, its bills, with energy monitors patrolling the classrooms, making sure lights and equipment are switched off when not in use. Their efforts were rewarded last year when the school was named one of the greenest in England by Keep Britain Tidy after scooping the prestigious title of Eco-Schools Ambassador.
Nash believes the real beauty of student-led projects is enabling children to make that difficult link between their own concerns and what matters to the wider world. It’s a struggle for a nine-year-old to care about global warming, but showing a child the tangible results of, for example, saving energy to free up more money for class resources, actually means something to him or her.
Nash says: “We have chickens at the school and through that they learn where their food comes from and understand what a food mile is. You are trying to instill in them really solid values and good practices that they will use to support the environment in the future.
“The goal of school is to ensure that children become responsible global citizens,” she adds. “They are informed and actually understand that whatever they do impacts upon somebody, somewhere in the world.”
Students at Cowbridge Comprehensive, another Eco-Schools Ambassador, set up an eco-committee to organise various green campaigns throughout the year. The committee is made up of at least two pupils from each year group, from years 7 to 13, and is chaired by sixth formers who put the agenda together and write the minutes of the meetings.
Coordinator of the committee, Welsh language teacher Llio Ellis, says the danger is the students will talk but get little done. It’s therefore her job to give them projects which they can really get their teeth into. And instead of tackling all the issues at once, they pick just three projects a year to ensure students remain focused on what they are trying to achieve.
While certainly ticking all the curriculum boxes, from biology to geography, the projects have taught the students how to work in a team and collaborate with their peers. It has also given them a sense of pride in their community beyond the school gates.
Following letters of concern by members of the public about the state of the footpath between the school and the town hall car park, the eco-committee sprang into action, leading a project with Keep Wales Tidy to organise a litter pick.
After two hours of hard graft, the students collected 50 bags of rubbish along the footpath and from nearby waterways, finding a lorry tyre, suitcase, pram, traffic cone, guttering, football and even an iPhone in and around the river.
A news bulletin-style video of the litter pick, made by students, was then shown in assemblies. Ellis believes hearing an important message on green issues from students themselves is hugely powerful when encouraging the rest of the school to stand up and take action.
“It’s not the teachers preaching, it’s the pupils telling each other and noticing the problems themselves,” adds Ellis.
“They develop that sense of citizenship, leaving school not just with an academic achievement, but with a sense of what it is to belong to a community and what the responsibilities are. It’s about playing an active part of the community.”
Without students’ input, Little Kingshill Combined School’s campaign to get solar panels fitted on the roof may not have been the runaway success that it was.
Thanks to the fundraising efforts of the children, from cake sales to good old family coercion, the school raised £15,000 for the panels with the help of the Solar Schools project.
Getting students to take the initiative and come up with their own ideas needs the support of the whole school, teacher Helen McCammond claims – staff and pupils. It’s a team effort to help the children find their voice on what they want to do in the school and achieve.
“We’re quite a small school and are very supportive of each other in whatever we do,” she adds. “That’s important because then you are not just one little voice among others.”
It won’t happen overnight, McCammond warns, but if you are enthusiastic, keen and have a clear vision of what the benefits are, your perseverance will reap huge rewards.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010