Yesterday I went to London’s City Hall to deliver a letter from over 100 local headteachers to the Mayor, Sadiq Khan. The letter calls for safe, clean air for children all over the city. “Clean air now! Clean air now! Clean air now!” chanted children from five primary schools. And who could argue with that?
The journey to City Hall began in July last year. As a former teacher, I went to Greenpeace with ideas for engaging schoolchildren in the air pollution campaign, and encouraging headteachers to sign a joint letter to the mayor. They were great and gave me the support to make my ideas happen!
I quickly realised that headteachers are difficult people to get hold of. I had quite a few very nice conversations with school office staff who, quite rightly, wanted to protect their boss from nuisance phone calls and emails. But once people realised what was at the heart of this campaign - protecting kids from deadly air pollution - the headteachers’ names began rolling in. Those headteachers then became great advocates for the campaign and asked their colleagues from other London schools to join in.
It was important to get the support of schools from the most polluted areas of London, but headteachers from the leafier boroughs gave their support too. They added their names not only because they could see the benefits of a city with clean air on their doorsteps, but also in support of the schools worst affected. That support now covers not only all the inner-London boroughs - those that are within the north and south circular roads - but also those from Hillingdon to Havering, from Bromley to Barnet. London’s headteachers want safe air for all our children.
To help the children understand what air pollution is, how it affects them and what they can do about it, we created classroom resources for teachers. These included a task to write a persuasive letter to the mayor on the subject. When we started to receive these letters back, it became clear that the best advocates for children’s health were the children themselves. Their letters were written with such passion and eloquence that we got a lump in our throat reading them. They put the argument for clean air perfectly, using the clarity and common-sense that sometimes only a ten-year-old can.
Seeing those children hand their own letters to the mayor this morning, along with the headteachers’ letter, is just about the best part of any job I’ve had. The children from the five primary schools filled City Hall with their enthusiastic calls for ‘Clean Air Now!’, and two of the headteachers that added their names to the letter gave powerful speeches. They called for measures that will protect the children in their playgrounds, including tackling diesel vehicles and introducing a robust Ultra-Low Emissions Zone.
Sadiq Khan listened carefully, and responded with commitments to forge ahead with plans to clean up our air. He made a new pledge to help the worst affected schools to reduce the impact of air pollution on their children. He accepted the letter - a bright yellow 5ft-long letter that he certainly can’t ignore - and our work was done. For the morning anyway. The fantastic Greenpeace air pollution team were then straight back to work on the next steps for the campaign. But for me, it’s back to school today. It’s been a great few months, and it ended with a really inspiring day.
- Air pollution is responsible for 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK - almost 10,000 in London alone.
- Young children are the least responsible for our polluted air, but they are the ones who are most vulnerable to it.
- Air pollution can cause asthma and make asthma worse for those who already have it.It can prevent children’s lungs from developing as they should.
- The main source of pollution in the city is traffic, and from all the traffic on the road, diesel vehicles are the biggest culprits.
Politicians have the power to act. They can help to clean our air by introducing robust Clean Air Zones, as Sadiq Khan is proposing for London. The UK government should also step in and cut diesel pollution by stopping the sale of new diesel cars.