When Andrea Carnevali was growing up in Italy, he used to play outside before school.
The freelance film editor, who moved to Britain 27 years ago, finds it “tragic” that his six-year-old son, Giovanni, has never been allowed to do so.
Giovanni goes to St Mary’s primary school in Chiswick, west London, where the playground is less than three metres from the six-lane A4, which carries 80,000 vehicles a day. In 2017 it was named one of the 50 most polluted schools in the capital.
The children used to be allowed to play in the playground before school but now they are sent inside immediately on arrival to avoid the worst fumes caused by rush-hour traffic. Mr Carnevali, 47, is leading a group of parents seeking to turn St Mary’s into one of the greenest schools in London and make it a showcase for ideas to improve air quality.
Last month they launched the first “car-free Friday”, in which children who arrive by any mode other than car have their hand stamped to qualify for an extra house point. Their parents are entered into a draw for a prize donated by a local business, such as a free restaurant meal, massage or haircut.
The number of children arriving by car has more than halved and some families have tried cycling or catching the bus for the first time. Later this month a 160m-long “green screen” made of ivy and a variety of other plants that trap exhaust particles on their leaves will be installed on the playground wall adjoining the A4.
Air purifiers are being installed in each classroom and the dining hall is being redecorated with a paint donated by a company which claims that it removes pollutants from the air.
Mr Carnevali does not know how effective any of these measures will be but several monitors have been installed outside and inside the school to measure the before and after levels of pollution.
He raised £70,000 for the wall with the help of celebrity contacts he worked with at the BBC. Emma Thompson, Claudia Winkleman, Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby were among those who sent video messages of support and this helped to attract sponsorship from companies with local premises, including Swarovski, which gave £10,000, and Porsche, which gave £2,000. Mr Carnevali acknowledges that many of the other highly polluted schools in London are in poorer neighbourhoods where parents may not have celebrity contacts and local businesses may not have cash to spare for sponsorship. So the parents at St Mary’s are producing a manual to explain everything they have learnt and to serve as a practical guide for other schools on how to improve air quality.
The one thing it will not do, however, is describe how to eliminate the source of the problem. It troubles Mr Carnevali that, after all their efforts, 80,000 vehicles will continue to pass the school each day.
The planned expansion of the ultra-low emission zone in 2021 will not help because the section of the A4 running past the school will continue to be free for highly polluting diesel cars.
“However much we try to do, we are just putting little plasters on the injury,” he said. “At the end of the day we have got to cure the real evil, which is all these cars.”
Making it on a national paper like “the Times” always feels like a big achievement, but some of the responses we got after the article on board messages and via email made it all even more rewarding.
I hope Almar won’t mind if I use his lovely message as example of many other heartwarming ones we received over the past few days.