Climate change is in the headlines every day. What are schools doing about this issue? Angela Youngman looks at the Eco-Schools programme

Can turning off lights, composting waste, reducing paper usage and increasing recycling in a school really make much difference to the global environmental crisis? Is it all just a gimmick or is it worth the effort?

Around 7,000 schools in England are convinced that it is worth the effort. All have signed up to the Eco-Schools programme and more are joining every week. Set up in 1994, the programme is run by the Foundation for Environmental Education with the aim of involving young people in finding solutions to environmental and sustainable development challenges. It is a concept which is proving highly popular. It sets out to show children that by taking small steps, such as recycling or composting, they can have a big impact on the global environment as well as their own community. Visit for further information.

Becoming an eco-school
To become an eco-school is not simply a matter of signing on the dotted line and doing a bit of recycling or composting. It does require the active involvement of the whole school and a willingness to change practices where necessary. Schools have to carry out an audit of their environment and their premises looking at ways in which energy can be conserved and the surroundings made more environmentally friendly. A new ethos has to run through the school on a day-to-day basis. Schools generally achieve this by setting up eco-clubs where the children monitor simple energy-saving measures such as turning off lights.

Once signed up to the programme, schools have to form an eco-committee of interested pupils and a teacher representative. This group has to meet regularly to discuss and decide on what environmental projects should be undertaken to help achieve their targets: bronze, silver and green flag awards. Children and teachers are encouraged to devise projects which help reduce the school’s impact on the environment. This can range from installing a wind turbine to produce some of the school’s electricity, building a nature garden and organising litter picking around the school grounds. A typical example is Worthen Primary School, Shropshire, which has recently converted an old bike shed into an eco-lab complete with wind turbine.

Becoming involved in the programme has a much wider impact than being a purely educational activity. As Andrew Suter, education project manager for Eco-Schools, points out, ‘Eco-schools enjoy a host of benefits – from improved school grounds, to savings in their energy bills, from better pupil behaviour to positive community ties.’

Schools involved in the programme have reported improved behaviour as children respond positively to the extra responsibility they are given. There have also been reports that participation in Eco-Schools has helped schools gain a good Ofsted report because it can be incorporated into parts of the curriculum such as citizenship; while projects are often visual and can be shown to an inspector as evidence of work.

Implementing the programme
The biggest worry for most schools in an age of ever-increasing government initiatives and introductions is how much time it is going to take up? What adjustments are necessary to fit it into the school day? Surprisingly few adjustments are required. Much of the work involved in implementing an Eco-Schools programme can be done as part of the curriculum requirement for studying citizenship. Other projects and data can be used in geography, science and maths lessons.

Informal environmental audits can be easily undertaken by the children. Issues covered can include:

  • Is the school litter free?
  • Does the school recycle anything: cans, paper, computer cartridges, etc?
  • Does the school use only recycled paper in disposable materials?
  • Are there lights left on unnecessarily?
  • Are there draughts around windows and doors?
  • Are windows left open while the heating is on?
  • Do the school’s grounds include areas of wildlife habitat other than those offered by grass on school fields?
  • Do the school toilets have water-saving devices fitted?
  • Are environmental issues discussed in lessons or in assemblies?
  • Does the school avoid the use of aerosols in art lessons or by domestic staff?
  • Does the school encourage composting of waste fruit and vegetables?

Such audits can be linked into the maths and science curricula. Measuring, recording, estimating, displaying and so on can all be developed to meet National Curriculum targets as well as contributing to the Eco-Schools project.

Once the environmental audit is complete, the school then has to draw up an action plan indicating what and how improvements can be undertaken. Targets are set and the school sets out to work on meeting those targets. An additional requirement is to develop a school eco-code or mission statement. It may take the form of simple phrases, a poem or a song. This is then displayed throughout the school.

The message and work of an eco-school does not end at the school gates. Parents often get involved. As children learn about the importance of energy saving and recycling; they seek to persuade parents to do simple things such as turning off the TV rather than leaving it on standby and composting their kitchen waste. The Eco-Schools programme is designed to involve as many people as possible suggesting that even local businesses can get involved by providing support in time or recycling materials, rather than just cash.

A positive impact
There is little doubt that becoming an eco-school achieves two aims at once – schools can save money and reduce costs while at the same time meeting curriculum requirements. There is an added bonus in that achieving green flag status is also good publicity for the school.

But how far can the involvement of a school make any difference on the global environmental situation? Eco-Schools are adamant that it does. Every little helps. As 50% of waste in eco-schools is recycled, this means a vast difference to the amount of material going to landfill sites. By turning off lights and not leaving computers on standby, it means that less energy is being used; this helps reduce the amount of energy needed to be produced, and thus fewer natural resources being depleted to provide that energy. As more and more schools join the Eco-Schools network the positive impact schools have on the environment is increasing. This in turn decreases their individual carbon footprints.

Andrew Suter, education project manager at Eco-Schools, comments, ‘Eco-Schools has been running for 11 years and has really taken off in the last two as green issues have shot up the political and media agenda. More and more schools want to become more sustainable and see that involving children in environmentalism can turn them into caring citizens. Children are the future of this planet and it is vital to get them on board about environmentalism. The good practice they learn at school is taken home with them and they are often the driving force behind their families beginning to recycle or turning off appliances at night.’

When asked what tips she would give to schools considering getting involved, Angie Jones of Great Waldingfield Primary (see box above) suggested ‘You must listen to the children. If it is their ideas then it gives them a feeling of belonging. Let them take the lead because it is their school and grounds. They will care for it if given the opportunity.’

Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer

‘The children are highly motivated and they care very deeply’ Tuckswood First School, Norfolk
One school which has just acquired green flag accreditation is Tuckswood First School, Norfolk. It is convinced that the effort has been worthwhile both environmentally and educationally. Work towards green flag accreditation began five years ago when the school joined the Eco-Schools network. It has meant everyone getting involved. Headteacher Sue Eagle commented, ‘We are doing many things in school. At lunchtimes, students go to each classroom and look for lights or computers left on. Each day they are given a red card if they haven’t done very well or a green card if they have. The students monitor this and at the end of each half-term, a polar-bear award is presented to the best.’

Eco-Schools assessors check that the school children really understand the situation and that they are fully aware of all the issues involved. ‘We had a huge folder of evidence but outside evaluators came into the school and talked to children to make sure they really understood the issues and it wasn’t just all on the surface,’ said Sue Eagle. ‘We received the bronze award for the first part of the project and then the silver and now, after five years, we have got the green flag.’
She points out that work does not stop there. The school has to remain worthy of the flag. In order to keep it, they have to continue with various projects, such as strengthening links with Kapamanlula School in Dedza, Malawi by working with them on energy, water conservation and growing food.

Teachers at Tuckswood are convinced that working for the award and the eco-culture being generated within the school has had a long-term effect on the children. ‘The children are highly motivated and they care very deeply. One of the amazing things now is that they automatically go to put fruit in the compost bin – even when we are out on trips.’

Keeping chickens to become eco-friendly: Great Waldingfield Primary
Headteacher Angie Jones of Great Waldingfield Primary says, ‘We set up Eco-friends, a group of children from all age groups who inspect classes to see if lights are left on, paper is used both sides, computers turned off etc. They report back in assembly saying which are the offending classes and which are the best at being eco-friendly. It gets the children’s attention!’

Funds can be sought for projects designed to help a participating school become more eco-friendly. Discovering this, Great Waldingfield took an unusual step – it decided to keep chickens. Angie Jones explains, ‘We realised we could recycle vegetable waste from school dinners if we had some chickens to feed it to. We had to write to neighbours to ask if they minded and to the LEA to check on health and safety. We got the go-ahead from them last year. It was a slightly unusual project for Eco-Schools, but they were keen. We had to cost it out – not just the cost of chickens but their enclosure and a shed to store their food and straw in. It was delivered and put up in the spring term. We got a broody hen and some eggs for her to sit on. The children were fascinated. We ended up with two Lavender Peking bantams which have feathery feet. When we are on holiday children take on chicken duty caring for them.’

Clearly, participation in the Eco-School programme is not just a matter of ticking boxes. Schools have to carry out a full environmental audit of their premises and grounds, assessing where improvements can be made. Angie Jones explains Great Waldingfield’s approach: ‘We did a survey of the school grounds and came up with a list of things we needed to improve such as establishing a little garden area and a vegetable bed. We felt that putting up a trellis to hide the calor gas tanks would be useful. As a result of the survey we got a big skip in to collect the rubbish on our grounds. The children did much of the work and it really looks nicer.’