Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth

'Children are key to saving the planet'
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The Independent Online

Tony Juniper, 47, has been a campaigner for 20 years. He is the author of Parrots and Spix's Macaw and, out earlier this year, How Many Lightbulbs does it Take to Change a Planet? and Save Planet Earth, the book of the BBC series. The current Friends of the Earth campaigns on climate change are "The Big Ask" and, for schools, "Shout About"

The most thumbed book in our house was The Observer Book of Birds. Living in Oxford, I was near to some amazing open spaces. I still remember seeing and picking up my first ever grass snake in Shotover Hill: a gorgeous green and black, it was just out of hibernation and was sliding through swampy ground. In almost any subject at St Christopher's Primary, I tried to invent a zoological theme to make it interesting to myself. I think the teachers would rather I had focused on something else occasionally. I have very happy memories of this lovely church school in Cowley, Oxford, which gave us lots of Moses and Pharaoh, as well as the Three Rs.

My parents didn't want to pressurise me and no one explained that the 11-plus was going to determine the rest of your life – and I failed the damn thing. I ended up in Temple Cowley Secondary Modern. It was a nice school, but not for the academically gifted and mainly geared up for apprenticeships to industry. It was a bit sissy to do any homework.

My prospects were salvaged at 14, when the comprehensive system was brought in. The secondary modern was closed down and I ended up in Oxford Boys, the former grammar school, which now became a comprehensive. I was put into the "secondary modern" stream and then moved into the "grammar" stream, which showed how crap the 11-plus was. This school was better equipped and had a stronger focus on the academic side; there was an expectation that the homework would get done.

Not working very hard, I surprised my parents by getting six or seven O-levels with Bs and Cs and did A-levels in biology, geography and art. In Sixth Form I also did geology O-level. I got Bs and Cs and then washed dishes for a year at Raymond Blanc's restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, at the same time doing psychology A-level; I got a B.

I had a wonderful time – more social than academic – at Bristol doing a degree in psychology and zoology. I got a 2.2. An awful lot of the time was spent in the Mendips and going to coastal marshes. I had a motorbike accident and spent the summer in hospital and the first term of my third year on crutches. I've still got big lumps of metal put in me by the surgeon to hold me together.

I decided I wanted to go into conservation and got on a scheme run by the Berkshire, Buckingham and Oxfordshire Naturalists Trusts, working in primary schools. You show a child a plant or frog and they're automatically interested. This is one of the ways in which the planet will be saved: educating children, who will be the next cabinet ministers and captains of industry. In addition, the urgency of global warming means we have to get to the people now in positions of power; we don't have time to bugger about.

I moved to London to do one of the few courses on nature conservation, an MSc at UCL. It was an intensive year of research and field work. Afterwards I became parrot conservation officer at Bird Life International. Parrots are the most endangered family of birds and in Brazil I found the last individual Spix's Macaw in the wild (there are some in zoos).

After the work we did, several of the most endangered species increased in number. This work is so worthwhile; sometimes you look at the scale of a problem and think, "What's the point?"