Inaugural Cambridge Green Schools Conference calls for change
The first Green Schools Conference, which took place at Parkside Community College on Sunday, was a lively, vibrant, interesting and often uplifting event which showcased a generation of younger students who understand a lot about climate change – and weren’t shy of expressing their views.
And those views were highly refreshing, with discussions ranging from what should be on the college’s menu, and if flying on a school trip is acceptable, to whether the school’s heating system should be turned down by three degrees.
The main hall at Parkside was set out with stalls for the event, which began at 1pm with a keynote address by Cllr Mike Davey, leader of Cambridge City Council. Speaking to the students, he said: “The climate and nature challenges we face today will be the defining issues of your generation. Some actions involve changing our individual behaviour, but some require political action, legislation and enforcement. It needs collective action.”
First up on the agenda was educational workshops. These were run by Solar for Schools, which supports the transition to renewable energy; Plastic Clever Schools, which advocate reducing the use of plastic; Peterborough Environmental City Trust, which assessed how to reduce negative impacts from food; and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire on how to reverse species decline.
Parkside’s main hall also hosted stalls run by the Green Party, the city council, Just Stop Oil, Kids Against Plastic, and Coleridge Community College, which discussed how to secure Green Flag accreditation.
Students from nine schools and colleges attended, said student Hugo McGurk. They were Comberton Village College, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology (CAST), St Mary’s, The Leys, St Bede’s and North Cambridge Academy, plus Trumpington, Parkside and Coleridge Community Colleges. Hugo, one of the organisers from Parkside’s Social Action Group, said: “There’s 65 pupils so far, without counting the Parkside contingent.”
During what was almost certainly their first media interview, the Social Action Group said that they started working on the event in February.
The group convenes to discuss issues that matter to them, including “Ukraine, sexual harassment and sustainability”.
“Around February or March we were brainstorming ideas to make Parkside more sustainable and Lillian said: ‘Why not host a conference?’,” explained Hugo. “We investigated the idea and got some suggestions for an agenda with [teacher] Denbigh Cowley, who facilitates the group, and as we went along we thought it was going well.”
Lillian said: “We did some emails for instance to Daniel Zeichner MP. We got sponsored by Jack’s Gelato, we thought about representatives and we came together across all age groups and everybody became involved. People donated to make it happen, and now we’re here today.”
Hugo said: “The real test is what happens after. Can we build a Cambridge-wide alliance of schools?”
Marielle added: “We’re networking ideas, seeing what other schools have done, and seeing if we can start a hub in Cambridge.”
Lillian added: “It grew from a dream to the here-and-now.”
Julian said: “We have short-term goals – such as improving the canteen, reducing the amount of plastic used on site, and seeing where the food is sourced from – to long-term plans to reduce energy use by using air-sourced heat pumps. I did some work last year for Solar for Schools, and they came round and did an assessment of our energy use.”
Marielle stressed: “We need to be carbon-neutral by 2030.”
Mark Turner, assistant principal (personal development), who was watching the interview session, added: “By 2030, we need to have gone from 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year to zero.”
So what feelings does the group have when they see what’s taking place with the climate?
Hugo said: “Frustration – and a sense of bewilderment, especially in the last week with the net zero announcements.”
Calum added: “Confusion.”
Lillian noted: “I get fed up trying to convince people it’s happening.”
Hugo added: “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. We’ve mobilised a lot of people.”
And Marielle said: “Lots of us aren’t sure what we can do to help.”
The discussion turns to school trips – should they fly?
“We stopped a trip to Iceland as it saved on energy but then the kids miss out. There’s a trip coming up to Berlin, so should we go by bus or train instead of flying?”
Julian said: “Sooner or later, one way or another, we have to recognise that we’re going to have to make sacrifices.”
The current state of politics in the UK isn’t helping this generation of children.
“Our system has become polarised. There’s no centre – it’s one or the other,” suggested Julian.“There’s no long-term plan.”
Calum said: “The system is funded by big corporations.”
A debate is chaired by Tom Heap, who hosts The Climate Show on Sky.
“This last week it’s fair to say I’ve been steaming about the state of the environment,” says Tom as he introduces himself to the audience of maybe 100. “And especially our political debate. Most of them are being politically weak on the environment. The motions they pass are not just about words but also actions; I want to spend time talking about how we deliver those promises.
“The next election will show if the British people give a damn about the environment and I would hope that they do.”
The first debate was about whether pupils should be able to fly on school trips. After some spirited discussion, the majority voted to continue flying – which surprised many even as the hands went up.
Next up was ‘should roofs and walls be turned into green spaces?’. That proved an easy win for the ‘yes’ crew, though Tom asked a supplementary question: “Who thinks we should green walls and roofs if it costs £50,000?” Just a few people supported that, suggesting that this cohort of pupils knows all about the budgetary restraints that have been placed on their educational development.
The third question was about whether people should put a deposit in plastic bottles. The majority agreed it would be a good thing, though one pupil asked how would the system ensure that people didn’t bring their drinks bottles from home to get the payment, which suggested there might be some entrepreneurs in the building…
Fourth up was having one meat-free day a week in the canteen. The proposer said they could still have meat at home. The motion received massive assent and was passed.
Finally, it was asked whether classroom thermostats should be turned down from 21 to 18 degrees? One audience member approved but said “warmer school uniforms are needed”. This was a landslide for the proposer – Julian – with only a couple of dissenters, a big call given how it will impact on their own comfort.
Afterwards I asked Tom Heap what he made of the vote to continue flying.
“It’s an interesting one,” he replied. “In some ways it makes an important if depressing political point, that people are still reluctant to make choices which might in some way lessen the quality of their lives.” He added that he had recently reviewed the train ride to Berlin on The Culture Show, noting: “It was a magical way to get to Berlin – it’s about enjoying the journey, not the destination.”
Otherwise Tom, like everyone else, was mightily impressed by the event.
“I am so stunned by the quality of the students and the questions,” he said. “I wish the party leaders who have shown waning enthusiasm for climate change were in front of them.”
Dee Wallace, principal at Parkside Community College, said of the event: “What an inspirational group of young people. We hope to see Cambridge schools now action some of their fantastic ideas. And we hope that this is the beginning of schools coming together regularly to discuss how to save our planet.”
Danielle Parker, business development executive, Solar for Schools, said: “The students showed an incredible awareness of the challenges in the way of getting solar panels on the school but came up with brilliant ideas for overcoming them. I was highly impressed.”
Finally, city councillor Anna Smith (Lab, Coleridge) said: “I was blown away by the quality of the debate today. If every council meeting was full of that quality of debate then we’d all be the better for it.”