What is French for green?

"Ca c'est typique! Tu ne comprends pas qu'on vit dans une société de consommateurs?" Pupils from Shawlands academy in Glasgow staged a play about the politics of conservation on an unused island in Pollok Park, an island they reclaimed themselves, wading out in welly boots to cut back the shrubbery and create a natural auditorium.

The Litter Pickers, which featured an argument between Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Hestia - in French - won the school a language award, and was gamely performed alfresco despite skies that threatened rain.

But as well as being a project that the school is proud of, The Litter Pickers typifies an approach to sustainability that tries to break down barriers between subjects and involve the whole school. That is the approach that has won the school this year’s award for sustainable schools. The judges were impressed by a “clear shared vision among pupils and staff” on sustainability. “The initiative has enriched teaching and learning across a wide range of curriculum areas,” they said.

Rich cultural mix

Shawlands, an inner suburb on Glasgow’s southside, is a mixed area. Its traditional tenements in red and blond sandstone are relatively sought after and it is sometimes called the “new West End”. A lively up-and-coming area, it has a diverse population and more than 50 languages are spoken by the 1,200 pupils. The most culturally mixed in Scotland, around half of its pupils are from ethnic minorities.

Within the school, many of the pupils themselves are concerned about the environment and dozens of them attend a thriving “eco club” that meets in a classroom at lunchtime.

Arriving with their sandwiches and drinks, the students share their concerns about climate change and what they can do about it. Although they exhibit a high level of awareness, they seem cheerfully positive, feeling that they’re doing what they can in their own back yard. Teachers say children coming in from primary school are increasingly used to thinking about the environment and want to do more.

Hazel Anderson, 12, is one of the large number of first-years who have chosen to join the eco club. “I think we have to do what we can to keep our world clean, because it is what future generations will inherit.”

“I just think it is really important that we act now because climate change is obviously happening,” says David Johnstone, 13, “We need to try to combat it before it is too late. What we’re doing in this club is recycling loads, and that must make a massive difference. If every school does what we’re doing, I think it would make all the difference.”

Sixth-former Daniel Chisholm, 16, is one of just two founder members who started the club four years ago. “I’ve seen a real difference in the school,” he says. One of the biggest changes is in the careless dropping of litter at break and lunch times. “When we first started doing this, the amount of litter that was getting dropped was unbelievable. It is quite tidy now, compared to what it was.”

The eco club was able to get funding from Clean Glasgow for handheld litterpickers and fluorescent jackets for volunteers, and one evening a week a group of them goes around the school and its environs picking up litter.

The group has installed a recycling system and once a week children sort out the recycling boxes from every area of the school, and take the collected material to a central point. The school recycled over 885kg of paper and plastic bottles last year, as well as mobile phones and printer cartridges. Unwanted shoes are also recycled and donated to Africa.

“We are trying to save the world, bit by bit,” says Tegan Westwater, 14, a committed member of the eco group who was chosen to visit Sweden last year to represent the school as part of a Clean Europe forum. An advert for recycling stands in the hall: a large statue known as Medusa, which the group made from recycled wood, metal and other refuse. The statue was temporarily moved to a nearby church hall last year where the school held an eco convention on sustainability attended by more than 1,000 people.

The technology teacher, Grant Gellis, who helped with the statue, has also been part of a group that is in the process of creating a small herb and flower garden in a verge at the edge of the playground. Biology teacher Laura Bremner is already making use of it to study plants, and they hope that enough herbs might be grown in time to allow home economics students to flavour their cookery with them.

The head, Ann Grant, is keen to build on the community’s strengths in this area. “There are a lot of young people in this school who are very committed to looking after the environment and to living in a more sustainable way. We’re also trying to encourage them to look after the place and to look after the future.”

Future plans

Grant plans to raise funding for solar panels and a wind turbine in the future to take them further in this direction – the building already has sensors on light fittings in the toilets to reduce electricity use. But Grant points to the head of the French department, Basia Gordon, as the real leader whose passionate commitment has set the ball rolling in this area. Gordon has worked indefatigably in many areas of the school’s life to involve students in eco projects, including getting children involved in the bilingual support group to join eco club members in regular work sessions at Pollok Park, a large country park which until the extension of the M77 was the largest urban green space in Europe. As well as reclaiming the island, they have also planted 1,000 trees and do other voluntary work, clearing rubbish and “bashing rhoddies” (rhododendrons), which have taken over in places.

Gordon says the benefit of encouraging the children with English as a second language to be part of volunteering was twofold. “It is partly about them getting to know other children and find out what is going on in the school and outside it, but it also means they are learning English.”

“We have come a long way in a short time. Four years ago, we only had two children in the eco group. Now there is a core group of 25 and a lot more who are involved in various things,” says Gordon. For the past two years, the eco group has had an annual weekend away to an outdoor centre in the Cairngorms, where they have taken part in outdoor activities and learned more about the natural world.

Clearly passionate about sustainability, Gordon is sincere about helping students to engage with these issues “because this is the world they are going to inherit”. DCSF award for sustainable schools

Regional winners

Beckington CE first school (West); St Francis Xavier Catholic school (West Midlands); St Christopher’s school (Wales); Upton Cross primary (South-west); Brill CE combined school (South); Ringmer community college (South-east); Shawlands academy (Scotland); Woodheys primary (North-west); Meanwood CE primary (North); Tollgate primary (London); Crosshall junior (East); Eureka primary (East Midlands); St Paul’s junior high (Northern Ireland)

The Guardian
October 21, 2008