Visit any primary or secondary school in Ireland, and you are likely to find a number of green flags at the gate.
Across the walls, there is artwork, poetry, stories, investigations and reports on why things such as renewable energy, sustainability and conservation are important.
There is no mandate to study this, but school communities are passionate about the environment. They spend the entire year developing green policies, only to take these even further the next year and so on.
Increasingly, young people themselves are taking the lead on environmental projects that are changing habits, growing leaders – and helping to protect the planet.
The work is passionate, and the policies ambitious, but, most importantly, they’re successful. Anything from eliminating plastics to promoting greener travel are things many adults are still struggling to get to grips with. Schools, meanwhile, are just getting on with it.
Perhaps it’s time we listen to school communities – on what works and what needs to be done – and maybe we’ll learn some valuable lessons.
Plastic-free schools: getting ‘plexit’ done
At Beech Hill College, Monaghan, a student-led “plexit” project has eliminated single-use plastic from the entire school campus, and won the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s 2019 “One Good Idea” competition.
The students say: “Our mission aimed to measurably reduce plastic pollution on our school campus, with a special focus on the reduction and ultimately the elimination of plastic bottles, plastic straws and utensils, and plastic food packaging.
The project began when six students undertook a young scientist-like module for two hours every week, during which the idea of working to reduce plastics in school took hold.
“We identified plastic pollution as a key concern on our campus, and we took action to confront the problem. We ended bottled water sales in the school and introduced a school-branded reusable drink bottle for every student and teacher in our school from September 2019,” the students explain.
The students hosted a plastic-free event to demonstrate further to the school community the impact single-use plastics are having on the environment. There, a contract banning single-use plastics was signed by principal Patrick McArdle and, from September 2019 onwards, every student and parent signed this same contract in the school journal.
As a result, the school canteen no longer uses disposable food containers and students use delph plates and stainless steel cutlery which are washed and reused.
For McArdle, the success of “plexit” means plastic-free school has become the new norm at Beech Hill College, and shows just how important student-led approaches are to making a difference.
“It is extremely important that schools listen to and value student voices,” he says. “This is something we endeavour to do in Beech Hill College every day.
"Young people are becoming more educated and vocal on environmental issues. They live in the realm of social media, and contact with other environmentally conscious young people around the world such as Greta Thunberg can have a massive positive influence on their opinions on environmental issues.
“Our young people are the future and if we don’t involve them now, then it will be extremely difficult to encourage them later in their lives. They are the change.”
While eliminating single-use plastic might strike fear in schools and businesses alike, McArdle’s advice is to start small and engage with all stakeholders from the beginning, including their local environmental officer; “a sense of ownership” of the project is pivotal to its success.
Busy with bees: building back biodiversity
Primary schools are small communities with big ideas, and “busy as a bee” takes on a new meaning at St Peter’s National School, Dromiskin, Co Louth, as young students learn to play their part in their local biodiversity.
In a curriculum which can be tailored towards any issue, it’s no longer a case of why teach about the environment, but more why not?
Principal Aoibheann Lynch says that by engaging children with practical, immersive lessons on the environment, communities will see a significant change in attitudes of their young people.
“It’s about communicating these ideals with the children who in turn educate their parents and the wider community,” she says.
“ It’s not just about showing them how to plant, but how to plant to enhance the environment. Finding ways to encourage bees and other pollinators back into our community.
“We want generations to come to have an appreciation of the vital aspects of life. And for us, bee pollination is at the top of our agenda.”
As part of redeveloping the school campus, the school worked alongside local beekeeper of 40 years Martin O’Rourke to develop best practice, and, more importantly, get pupils involved.
Their work, which spanned from Junior Infants upwards, included students actively researching and planting pollinator-friendly flowers and vegetables, caring for them and harvesting them throughout the year.
Everything from eco-friendly pest control to sustainability and recycling of materials to creating suitable habitats for pollinators and insects was covered throughout the year’s curriculum.
I've seen a great change in primary schools, with children becoming more environmentally conscious
Students developed a “bee drinking station” at their vegetable patch, to ensure pollinators stayed hydrated during warmer weather.
Lessons do not get much more immersive than 2,000 bees brought into class, inside a glass hive, to give children a picture-perfect view of the work they’re doing.
It’s lessons like these, O’Rourke says, that children will act on to really make changes in how communities operate.
“Learning about the environment should always be purposeful and everyone should learn how they can play their part, no matter how small, or young,” he says.
“I’ve seen a great change in primary schools, with children becoming more environmentally conscious – and you can see that ripple effect in the locality. I certainly do with my work.”
Cycle bus: green light for green travel
Latest figures show the car is still king when it comes to how students get to school.
In Galway, some schools are trying to change this through an idea borrowed from the Netherlands: the cycle bus.
Alan Curran came across it when trying to work out a more sustainable way of bringing his own five-year-old to primary school, 3km away.
“I had watched videos in the Netherlands of kindergarten children being escorted by bike to school by their schoolteachers, and I just wondered whether something like that would work here,” he explains.
“I spoke to a couple of parents in my estate, as they had children in the same school, and they liked the idea of all the children in the estate cycling in together with parents so there was safety in numbers. As we chatted more, my ambition for the idea grew.”
Curran says the support from schools has been phenomenal and there is huge enthusiasm among pupils.
Twenty minutes of exercise first thing in the morning has such a positive impact on their learning
“We have teachers in the school who join us in a marshalling capacity every morning, and this strengthens the link between the school and the community,” Curran says.
It's an initiative that has inspired many communities across Ireland, with school cycle buses and scooter trainers now operating in Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Dublin.
“Whether children cycle, walk or scoot to school, 20 minutes of exercise first thing in the morning has such a positive impact on their learning,” Curran says.
“They are more engaged in their lessons, more alert in the classroom, and are playing, socialising and chatting with their friends from the minute they arrive.
“We’ve been waiting decades for local and national governments to act on these issues. The time for direct action, by the community, is now.”