Involvement in European energy awareness projects can bring a multitude of benefits to the pupils and staff of schools, as well as to the planet, says headteacher David Dixon

For the last 10 years, my school has built a very productive relationship with our local energy agency at Newark and Sherwood district council. This really started by accident as part of a European project and has grown into a partnership which has become a significant part of our programme of school improvement.

This first project involved our local energy agency and counterparts from several European countries. They were to engage their local schools in energy awareness activities. In our case, a group of sixth formers from our receiving high school came in and did an audit of the school’s water, gas and electricity and compiled a report for the LEA and our staff and governors. This included recommendations on how we could cut energy consumption and thus save money and cut emissions.

The former benefit was given priority, as in those days global warming was but a vague possibility. Some of the recommendations included details of what energy saving measures could be put in place, such as radiator reflectors and replacement of a coke-fired boiler for a gas one. Other recommendations centred on how the behaviour of children and staff could save energy. These included switching off unnecessary lights, not wasting water, not leaving doors and windows open in the winter and putting on a jumper instead of turning a thermostat up.

Some years previously, the energy agency had promoted a project called ‘E-Teams’. These were teams of children who were trained up to monitor energy consumption in school and to nag everyone not to waste it. This was also designed to have a knock-on effect of getting all children in school to take this energy awareness knowledge home and nag their parents into energy-saving compliance. This harnessing of ‘pester power’ has proved to be very effective. We revisited this and started our own E-Team, which has operated ever since.

One direct benefit of this first project was a replacement of our antiquated coke boiler for an efficient gas one. This had an added benefit when the redundant coal store was converted into a room for the delivery of adult learning (which was part of the school’s then development plan that spoke of ‘raising the profile of learning in a significantly deprived community’). This later blossomed with European Social Fund money and now delivers hundreds of adult learning outputs a year and is an important part of out full service extended school brief.

As the years went by we were involved in other European energy awareness projects such as Kids4Energy (www.kids4energy.net). This and other projects have compiled a vast number of good practice case studies and cross-curricular resources.

Our contribution to Kids4Energy was to promote energy and environmental awareness through drama and music. This culminated in a lavish whole-school production featuring all 480 children entitled: ‘Revenge of the Alien Eco-Warriors’. This was written by two of our teachers and had a group of superior aliens putting mankind on trial for grievous bodily harm to the planet. It included lots of digital effects and pre-recorded video slots.

The script, score and performance were put on a DVD which is to be made available to other schools. We documented the learning outcomes and the ‘story behind the story’, which also went on a DVD. This meant it hit a number of important buttons: curriculum enrichment, community involvement and improved pedagogy (teachers/TAs learning from each other as part of the process). It also fulfilled the remit of Newark and Sherwood Energy Agency in that it promoted local energy awareness education in the community. This is also recognised as one of our extended services as it is part of the drive to alleviate families designated as suffering from ‘fuel poverty’, ie more than 10% of the family income is spent on energy.

As time has passed, the emphasis of these projects has shifted from basic energy monitoring and the implementation of simple energy saving measures, to strategies for changing attitudes and behaviour in relation to health of our planet’s eco-system. David Pickles OBE, manager of Newark and Sherwood Energy Agency, has always said that creating a sustainable lifestyle is 10% a technical solution and 90% a behavioural solution.

Contrast this with Tony Blair’s recent pronouncements on solutions to global warming, which appear to reverse these two figures! The Pickles scenario is really saying that we need to develop energy efficiency in the context of citizenship. It also embraces the often quoted environmental maxim of ‘thinking globally, acting locally’.

With all this in mind, we have incorporated energy awareness education into our Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) curriculum initiative. This was partly inspired by working with WWF and adopting their ‘Pathways’ framework and also to develop a sustainable schools self-evaluation framework which corresponds with the current SEF format (see Teachernet under Sustainable Schools). For those not acquainted with WWF, I can thoroughly recommend their large online resource bank which is mostly free and excellent publications that cater for all ages and abilities.

We have linked this Energy Awareness/ESD work to aspects of Excellence and Enjoyment (DfES 2003) because is a wonderful vehicle for experiential learning with subject matter to which children of all ages can easily relate in all curriculum areas. The fact that it can also help save the planet is also not insignificant!

Other links include those with School Travel Plan, Eco-Schools accreditation, Healthy Schools, PSHE and Citizenship and Social And Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL – which is itself part of the Excellence and Enjoyment package) and not forgetting the Every Child Matters agenda.

In each of the EU projects mentioned above, individual countries have developed different activities and approaches according to their needs and the type of education system within which they operate. It has been fascinating to compare and contrast the various education systems in Italy, Bulgaria, France, Eire, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Greece. There are meetings two or three times a year according to the project and I have attended a number of these over the years. In general, the representatives have been from energy agencies and they sometimes have difficulties engaging schools, particularly if the National Curriculum in question is prescriptive, which invariably it is.

In this respect, I am happy to report that our curriculum organisation seems very flexible in comparison. This is partly because of the ‘all things are relative’ factor, but also because of the changes that have occurred in the last two years which have given teachers in the UK more of a say in how things are taught.

However, despite different education systems, one can still see that the degree of creativity and innovation that the project can unleash still depends upon the adventurousness of the respective school leaders. There are those who just see the project as a one-off exercise on one end of the spectrum, and others who are using it to enhance the pedagogy of staff and the learning potential of children at the other end. It is not just the personality or prowess of the head that determines how ambitious schools are with the projects. It also depends upon the circumstances of the schools and where they are in their particular evolution. This applies to UK schools as much as their EU counterparts.

The latest project is called Active Learning, led by the Norwegian partner and based on the work they did in the previously mentioned Kids4Energy project. Norway has been way ahead in the field of ESD, not just in schools but in society at large. For example, there is a Saturday morning TV show for children which has an ESD theme running through it. To look at it you would see a presentation style typical of Saturday morning TV in the UK. There is plenty of humour, slapstick and topical features which tap into the culture of youth. It is called Kykelikokos. Underpinning it is research that the Norwegians have undertaken, looking at how humour can be used in education and how the pupil/teacher relationship is vital for meaningful learning to take place.

All the schools involved in Active Learning have agreed to do a core of activities, which are obligatory, with a range of others which are voluntary and ESD-based. The project provides a database of all activities and schools can use these, or ones from previous projects, or from any other source. The core is all about energy monitoring and includes reading electricity and gas meters along with taking outdoor temperatures. This will be fed into a central database which can be accessed by all partners. The aim is for schools to look at each others’ data and seek reasons for similarities and differences.

Children in each school will also see if any energy saving measures have any effect on the school consumption. In our case, I hope that we can save even more money to help our fragile school budget (in some countries this would not be a benefit for the school because they do not operate devolved budgets).

The European collaboration described in this article has really opened my eyes in terms of seeing tangible benefits for the partners. Although everyone complains about the bureaucracy involved, it is probably inevitable when one is dealing with a large number of countries and where expenditure and outcomes/outputs need to be accountable.

The education projects are only a tiny part of what the EU is doing to combat climate change. It gives me optimism for the future to see the effort that is going into this. Unfortunately, not much of this good work is featured in the British press.

The projects have also provided my school with more resources, enabling us to take forward innovations in the curriculum and associated pedagogy. They have also provided other staff and myself with a different perspective on education by rubbing shoulders with European partners.

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