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Pester power

More and more schoolchildren are promoting the green message - including badgering parents about turning off lights and shunning cheap holiday flights. Bibi van der Zee reports on the classroom activists

Thursday February 1, 2007
The Guardian

'My mum and dad do get quite excited about cheap flights and that sort of thing," says Ben West. "My mum will say, 'Let's go to such and such for Christmas, it's really cheap,' and I have to point out that the price doesn't really reflect the true cost of the flights. You know, in carbon terms."
How do parents respond to this? By scolding their child for displaying such impertinence? Or do they simply dismiss it as youthful idealism? Impressively, Ben's mother tends to laugh and say that he is probably right. No wonder that her son is now one of Britain's most active activists - before even taking his A-levels.

West, 18, set up a branch of the environmental group People and Planet, at King Edward School in Southampton a couple of years ago, and has since taken over the school for a week in order to run a special curriculum about climate change and fair trade. "That was actually two weeks before my AS mocks," he says. "My parents were worried that I was doing too much campaigning and not enough schoolwork." He's on the environment committee at school, the youth board at Oxfam, and has asked his long-suffering headmaster to look into a school ethical investment policy.
"I think he was a bit taken aback by that," says West. "Our school usually raises money for charities, rather than campaigning."

Crispin Chatterton, the sixth forms project officer at People and Planet's head office, says school campaigners are thriving. "It makes me feel exhausted sometimes, the amount these children are getting done," he says. "But we depend on it, too. That's what we stake everything on."
It's no surprise that using children has got obvious appeal as a campaign tactic. After all, they make natural campaigners - no shades of grey, no nuanced arguments, just loads of passion and clarity, and a general lack of embarrassment about putting themselves forward. So no wonder that museums, councils, schools and campaign groups are all busily setting up green schemes for children, hoping that they might act as catalysts for change.

The Eco-Schools scheme, which sets schools eco targets and helps them integrate environmental issues into the curriculum, now has more than 5,500 schools taking part. Andrew Suter, who runs the scheme, revels in the children's enthusiasm for the projects. "When you go into the schools, you'll get children pulling you into different classrooms, saying, 'Look, this teacher only uses one side of the paper.' It's a great chance for them to be the teachers and tell their parents what to do for a change."

But is this passion for targeting children misplaced? "I went to an education conference last summer," says Professor David Uzzell, who runs an environmental psychology research group at the University of Surrey and who conducted some research a decade ago into whether you could change behaviour through the environmental education of children. "Everyone there was absolutely convinced that this was the way forward, that 'pester power' was the answer. Our research showed that it can be useful, but that you have to have certain preconditions for it to work, such as a household where the environment is an appropriate topic of conversation, parents who aren't afraid to take the pupil role while their children become the teachers, and parents who are being worked on at the same time as the child, so they're receptive to the message. I don't want to be negative about this, but giving green messages to children will not be enough by itself. Other tactics need to be used too."

But things have changed greatly in the 10 years since Uzzell did that research: it's safe to say now that we are all being "worked on" to accept the climate-change message.
Sytchampton Endowed First School in Worcestershire, which signed up to the Eco-Schools scheme in 2003, has sent out questionnaires to parents to find out how effective "green teaching" has been in getting the children's households to change their behaviour: 96% of parents said they were making more energy savings at home since the scheme started, and 94% thought their children would continue to think about environmental issues, which is what you would call a positive result.

Iris Fox, deputy head at Sytchampton, remembers one parent saying to her: "Can you please tell my daughter that we are allowed to have some lights on - she's got us sitting in the dark like mushrooms." "For me," says Fox, "the Eco-Schools project is about empowerment for the children. They know there are problems, they know that polar bears might become extinct and that the ice caps are melting, and this makes them feel that they can go out and do something about it."

The children themselves are keen to do something about a situation which, as Nathan Griffiths, eight, says, threatens "the polar bears, my favourite animals, and the penguins and is making the ice melt. I always talk to my parents: they say, 'Do we have to have all the lights off?', and I tell them, 'You can have the lights on when you're in a room'." Jack Roberts, nine, says he has to nag his parents a lot, but, as Danielle Lawson, eight, points out, turning off lights and shutting doors "will help save the electricity which is rising so everything gets hotter". Hamish Hackett, nine, admits that "I feel a bit worried and a bit uncalm about this climate change."

The dark background note to all these positive calls for action is, of course, that climate change will affect these children far more than it will their parents, and this can sometimes lead to an air of despondency. As Anra Kennedy, editor of, the children's section of the online 24-Hour Museum, says: "My eight-year-old goes through phases of being stridently green but on the other hand is struggling to come to terms with my refusal to fly her to Lapland on a day trip for eco reasons. That tested the limits of her commitment. I think the way climate change is portrayed in the media is difficult for children; it has become the cloud that is overshadowing their view of the future in the same way the nuclear bomb did with my generation. It's very hard to get the balance right between informing them and scaring them."
In the meantime, as Elinor Broom, nine, says: "Keep turning the lights off".

Thanks to Mike Yoell who heads up the Environmental section of the Comittee for submitting a copy of this article to keep us all informed.

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