Learning to grow on less

Observations on education

As children hurry into Beaumont Primary School clutching their book-bags and lunch-boxes, they don't bat an eyelid at the wind turbine whirring above them. Despite their young age, they're fully aware that their school, built two years ago on a housing estate in Hadleigh, Suffolk, is special. One of the most energy-efficient in the country, in fact. On an average day, the wind turbine produces enough energy to run all the computers in the school's ICT suite. Solar panels on the roof provide extra heat, and a rainwater recovery system reduces the mains water used by the school. The collected rainwater, or "grey water", is filtered and used to flush the toilets.

The headteacher, Stella Burton, says the school's 140 pupils have taken to the concept of renewable energy like ducks to water. The children are fascinated by how their building works and regularly consult the touch-screen computer in the entrance hall to check how much power the turbine is producing. They are quick to pick up litter and urge their parents to switch off lights at home to avoid wasting electricity. "This is how schools should be," says Burton. "The pupils have a real enthusiasm for reusable energy, and I feel that when they are adults they'll use the knowledge and understanding they've gained here."

Not all schools are as lucky as Beaumont Primary - it was designed from scratch and its wind turbine was jointly funded by the government's Clear Skies initiative and Suffolk County Council's education department. But many other schools up and down the country are showing what can be achieved at grass-roots level, through projects, campaigns and awareness-raising activities.

When a group of 95 14- to 16-year-olds from schools all over the world handed G8 leaders a communique at the Edinburgh summit in July, climate change was at the top of their list of concerns. They called for measures such as an international symbol to show consumers which products are environmentally friendly and energy-efficient, and for all new buildings to use renewable energy technology. Go-ahead Long Eaton School, a specialist science college in Nottingham, has even sent pupils to the last four of the UN children's conferences on the environment.

The Centre for Sustainable Energy, a charity set up in 1979 to advance sustainable energy policy and practice, is adamant that youngsters have a vital role to play in changing society's attitudes and behaviour. With the government committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 and 60 per cent by 2050, there's clearly a long way to go - and harnessing the awareness of the next generation, inside and outside school, is key.

"We want the message to go beyond the classroom and into the home, so young people can act on the issues they are learning about at school," says Cheryl Gilbert, the CSE's education project manager. The CSE believes energy education is most effective when children are treated as environmental decision-makers in their own right and get the chance to assess information for themselves, weigh up evidence, draw conclusions and identify appropriate actions.

One initiative that has had considerable impact is the CSE's Energy Matters programme, linked to the national curriculum and designed to reduce energy use within the home. Pupils, supported by their parents, carry out energy surveys, then analyse the data they've gathered and make recommendations on how energy efficiency could be improved. More than 500 primary and secondary schools have taken part since it was launched in 1999, and research shows that 76 per cent of parents have changed their behaviour as a result. An impressive 54 per cent have installed energy-saving measures in their homes, including low-energy light bulbs, energy-efficient appliances and home insulation improvements. Among the benefits reported are reduced fuel bills, improved warmth and less ill-health.

The Department for Education and Skills signalled its commitment to sustainable development - the subject is a curriculum requirement in science, geography, design and technology and citizenship lessons - by launching its own action plan in 2003. Its objectives included improving curriculum resources, increasing recycling, introducing sustainable design concepts to new school buildings and encouraging schools to raise awareness of the issues involved. All admirable stuff, although green campaigners would like the government to do more to help schools embrace renewable energy.

Elsewhere, there's an abundance of imaginative schemes to get children thinking about the global environment. The CSE runs the Climate Change Challenge, which involves sixth-formers in the south-west quizzing local authorities about their response to the government's commitment to reduce carbon emissions. The Eco-Schools programme gets schools to work towards three award levels by making eco-improvements such as setting up recycling and rainwater collection facilities, switching off unused lights, closing doors to retain heat and encouraging cycling to school. And Friends of the Earth will be staging its Shout About Climate Change campaign week for 11- to 13-year-olds in November - complete with role play, quizzes and a challenge to design an eco-car.

As FoE's education co-ordinator Ingela Andersson explains: "We hope to get young people interested in climate change, as they are the generation who will be most affected."