Monday, 18 November 2019

Environment Monday - Driving environmental awareness via education policy

If you've read our environment Monday column before, you can skip this paragraph. It just explains what it is all about. So you want to save the planet, combat climate change, leave a legacy for your children that you can be proud of but you just don't know where to start? I started the Environment Monday series of blogs to try and spread a few practical ideas, things that are practical and work. I'd love your ideas, guest blogs and help. The old adage of think global, act local has been my mantra for decades. If we all start with ourselves, look at our lifestyles, look at the small changes we can make in our carbon footprint, on our own we will make a miniscule difference, but if we do it and it works, maybe our friends will sit up take, notice and over time (which is precious), together we can start to make a big difference. Each week, we will explore a different theme, a different way that we can all make a difference.

In case you missed the  news, we've got a General Election looming. Earlier this year, a Climate Change emergency was declared. You would think that in such circumstances, the issue would be at the forefront of the Political debate. Sadly, we've heard nothing on the issue from the two largest parties. My view is that Labour just don't get the issue and the Tories just don't care. As I've been writing these blogs, I've come to the realisation that concern for the environment is not a stand alone issue. It impacts all manner of our lives. I have wanted to write a blog on the subject of how education policy should be driven by environmental concerns for some time, and todays blog is the culmination of this. You may be surprised to know that I am not going to talk directly about education of children in matters of climate change in any great length, beyond stating what I believe should be obvious. The science and the facts need to be taught, and this is more important than the teaching of subjects such as history as we are talking about shaping the future, rather than picking the bones out of medieval eras.

What we will be talking about is making places of education places where we have the best practice. By and large, the fuel requirements of schools are in daylight hours, therefore it is a bit of a no brainer to fit solar panels to make the schools as self sufficient in energy as possible. It would be good for pupils to be aware of how much energy is being generated. One of our local schools, St James RC secondary installed a wind turbine. Again this sends a message to the young people in the school that the issue is serious. It raises awareness. I would fit one to every school where a case could be made.

Then there is the issue of school grounds. We need to consider planting shrubs that reduce airborne particulates in urban areas. We need to plant trees in the areas that are not in use and we need to educate the pupils in how this affects the schools carbon footprint.

In terms of energy efficiency, schools should have the most efficient lighting and heating systems possible and the highest quality of insulation. Modern schools that have been built in recent years meet modern standards, but there are plenty of old and clapped out school estates, that ore costinga fortune to keep warm in winter, which generates greenhouse gasses by the ton. Replacing these, or improving their energy efficiency is a win/win. The pupils have a better environment to work, the taxpayer spends less on energy and we produce less CO2. In short, it is an investment well worth making.

The biggest change I would make though, would be to end the morning school run. Every schoolday, our roads are clogged with cars making short journeys, for parents to drop off children. Not only does this directly generate greenhouse gasses and polution for the parents sitting in the cars, but it also clogs the roads so cars, vans and lorries are not moving, pumping out gasses. How do we address this? The solution is very simple (and likely to be unpopular in some circles). Local authorities simply need to state that children will go to their nearest school. Where this is not possible or desirable, then the schools and parents should be compelled to have green travel plans. I am not unsympathetic to parents of faith wishing for children to attend faith schools, which may not be the nearest one to their house. As this is a personal choice for the parent and it increases their household carbon footprint, then there should be a cost to that household to offset the difference. Of course for families on low incomes, schemes should be put into place to assist them, but for well off families, many of whom are only really committed to their religious beliefs at the time when they are choosing schools, there is no reason why the wider community should suffer for their polluting behaviour.

I would like to see drop off exclusion zones of 500 metres around all schools. This would not only cut out many short journeys, but as we are suffering a childhood obesity crisis, the exercise would do all a lot of good. Stressing that the reason for this was positive action to combat the climate emergency would be a hugely positive step towards raising awareness of the crisis.

Another subject I would address is school lunches. Schools should serve, healthy, nutritious and where possible locally produced food where possible. I would ban packed lunches, except where there are specific dietary requirements and ban all packaged foods, be it crisps or shop bought sandwiches.  I have friends and relations who are teachers who tell that many parents think that a Mars bar, a bag of crisps and a couple of pepperami is seen by some parents as a healthy lunch. By building healthy eating habits, the country would see a drop in heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which are becoming prevalent in ever younger people.. It would also mean far less waste. For the local authorities that have a huge cost in disposing of this, it would make a big difference.

Finally I'd like to see all schools develop school gardens, where fruits and vegetables could be grown and used in the school kitchens. Whilst for some inner city schools this may be impractical, there are plenty of creative ways that children could become involved, even if it involved small spaces, such as the urban gardens on Kentish Town station. Young people should be involved in growing plants and vegetables and I'd like to see a situation where every child eats some food they have grown before their school journey ends, even if it is only from a tomato plant on the window sill of their class. Understanding that we are all part of an ecosystem and that plants need care to thrive is surely a lesson that every child should learn.

Whilst in the short term, there would be costs associated with all of these, over a period of 20 years I believe that we'd see huge payback. In financial terms the energy efficiency has clear benefits. The health gains from the other suggestions would reduce costs to the NHS massively over the longer term. Whilst some might say that this is all "nanny state", the state provides schooling and so it should be able to state the terms. Expecting people to behave in an environmentally responsible manner is to me part of citizenship. Making sure children eat healthy and nutritious foods is plain common sense. Trying to build behaviours such as exercise and healthy eating that combat heart disease and diabetes are what governments should do. Sadly none of this is on the agenda.

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