Welcome to the green school

It has solar panels, its own vegetable garden and every pupil knows the 'eco-code'. Meg Carter visits a school where they believe you're never too young to start saving the planet
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The Independent Online

First impressions can be deceptive. For despite its un- inspiring sprawl of single-storey classrooms, which seem to have been randomly thrown together over many decades and are now once again undergoing yet more building work, Eastchurch Church of England Primary School, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, is at the cutting edge of energy conservation and sustainable development.

The first clue is the green flag that flutters above the main school building - confirmation of the school's official status as an eco-school, a European environmental award programme designed to encourage and reward environmental management within schools and pupil involvement in all issues and activities relating to it.

The second is Eastchurch Primary's eco-code, a green philosophy devised by its pupils, details of which are proudly displayed on a notice board opposite the school's reception, alongside rosettes awarded for the best vegetables grown in the school garden.

Members of the school's e-team, an enthusiastic group of eight- and nine-year-olds from Year 4, eagerly show interested visitors the various green measures pupils have developed and co-ordinate.

"We check all classrooms, corridors and boys' and girls' toilets each lunchtime to check lights have been turned off and no taps are left running," Sophie Mackenzie, an e-team member, says. "Then we award a certificate each week to the class that has done best."

As well as regular patrols, the e-team is also responsible for the regular collection of electricity, gas and water-meter readings as well as data relating to carbon emissions and energy generated by the solar panels that the school had installed on the roof a year ago.

Each class from Reception upwards operates a recycling, energy and water-monitoring system. Teachers integrate energy awareness into a diverse range of lessons and other activities, which include energy-saving leaflets designed by pupils for local householders. School meals cooked on the premises favour local produce wherever possible. Parents are encouraged to participate, too, by walking their children to school; for those who can't there's the Kent County Council-run low energy Yellow Bus.

"Over just the last year since the solar panels were installed, we have managed to reduce our electricity needs by ten per cent," Paula Owens , Eastchurch primary's deputy head, proudly explains. "What makes this all the more of an achievement is that over the same period we had new electric white boards installed. So we estimate at least half of the decrease in our energy consumption has been due to switching things off when they are not being used."

This is just one reason why Eastchurch Primary School was confirmed as a joint winner in the annual Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy earlier this month. The accolade is accompanied by a £10,000 grant to invest in further sustainability work - a welcome contribution given that it took Eastchurch primary five years of campaigning to raise just £20,000.

Yet the school's achievements go further than this, Owens believes. "None of what we have done so far would have been possible without the commitment and enthusiasm of the children - who decided to set up the e-team and developed the eco-code - and the support of their families," she says.

"People often underestimate what children can achieve. Yet it is a fact that adults can be shocked into action when they are told what to do by a child and when what that child is saying is right."

This is a view shared by Mike Wolfe, the Ashden Awards judge who is also chief executive of Create, a charity that promotes and supports energy awareness in schools. "Schools have a critical role to play in spreading awareness and understanding of energy efficiency and sustainability within the community at a time when concerns about global warming and its implications have never been greater," he says.

Of the 32,000 schools in the country, 6,300 presently have eco-school status, according to Encams, the charity behind the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, which administers the eco-schools scheme in the UK. However, only 11 schools entered this year's Ashden Awards - an indication of how hard it is for schools to develop initiatives in this area, Wolfe claims.

"Little financial support is available to exploit the potential that exists within schools to drive awareness of energy issues within the community," he says. "And what initiatives do exist are there, typically, purely because of the enthusiasm of individual teachers."

Between 1996 and 2002, Create ran a school energy grants programme on behalf of Defra, which provided 2,000 schools with £8m worth of support to implement energy-saving measures, such as insulation, heating and lighting controls. In each school involved, carbon emissions were reduced, on average, by 15 per cent. This grant scheme was then scrapped, however, and there is now no financial support for any schools wanting to introduce energy-saving measures.

"In a way we've become victims of the ethos that all schools should now be managed independently," says Jim McManners, head teacher of Cassop Primary School in County Durham, which co-won the Ashden Award with Eastchurch Primary.

"In the past, local education authorities creamed off a certain proportion of schools' money to fund worthy investments. Because of political pressures over the years, all funds now go direct to schools where pretty much all money is spent on day-to-day priorities rather than things likely to provide a return on investment over time."

Cassop primary serves two villages in what was a working mining community until the mid-Eighties. As part of a strategy to encourage pupils to care about the environment by first getting them to understand and interact with it, the school set up its own recycling centre. It also has solar panels on the roof; a wind turbine co-funded by the local council and power company Northern Electric; and a biomass boiler fuelled by pellets produced at a nearby landfill site.

However, while energy- saving grants for schools no longer exist a number of funding sources are available for renewable energy projects. For example, schools are eligible to apply for grants under the Low Carbon Buildings scheme launched this month, which offers up to £30,000 to cover 50 per cent of the construction cost of any new building to make it more carbon efficient. The private sector is also getting involved. Powergen now offers grants to fund community renewable energy initiatives and earlier this month awarded £24,000 to a Gloucestershire further education college, Ruskin Mill College, to fund the installation of a micro-hydropower system expected to cut CO2 emissions and save the college £1,700 a year in energy costs. Powergen's parent company, E.On UK, will also launch a major schools educational initiative later this year to help children from five to 16 learn about energy and the environmental implications of different forms of energy production. "It might seem strange for a power company to say use less energy, but the less people use, the less we need to produce, which is good for everyone," Jonathan Smith, an E.On spokesman, says. "It's important to catch people young. Today's school children are tomorrow's home owners. Reach them at school and, hopefully, they will carry that message with them in their future life."

How green is your school?

Seemingly inconsequential measures - such as checking that taps aren't left on or computers are switched off when not in use - can have a significant impact over time.

All schools use and re-use materials for classwork, projects, and arts and crafts, but what about the items left over at the end? Some councils offer schools a financial incentive to recycle them. Other schools work with charities to recycle items into products that can be used to raise funds for good causes.

Some schools encourage pupils to write their own eco-code. At your school, to what extent are environmental issues integrated into a broad array of lessons - from art to maths and science?

Recent initiatives have included a competition between schools to see who can collect the most copies of the Yellow Pages for recycling. Other schools undertake community projects such as tree planting, or design leaflets about green issues to raise awareness locally.

Does your school offset its carbon emissions and generate some of its energy from renewable sources? Such initiatives are costly, but a number of power companies and councils have funded projects in schools to demonstrate the potential of renewable power to the local community.

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