Steps to sustainability: the 10-minute guide to greening your school

    Published: 09 June 2021

    In the last year, teachers have become used to leading from the front. Whether it’s pioneering online learning, rolling out mass-testing in school halls or making class-rooms safe for face-to-face learning, teachers have rapidly adopted new ways of working and thinking that have brought benefits to the entire community.  

    Now you need to do it again. This time, the challenge may not have the immediate impact of COVID, but it is no less deadly. Climate breakdown threatens disastrous changes to the natural world. And with it our lives will be transformed in ways we are only just starting to understand.

    It turns out that everything we do has a hidden carbon cost and the only way to live sustainably is to adjust our lifestyles and our thinking. And this all comes back to education. Many students already have deeply-felt concerns about climate breakdown, and educators are in the perfect position to lead, building on an incredible enthusiasm bubbling up amongst many youngsters who are desperate to do their part for the planet. But where to start? How can we encourage our school communities post-COVID to embrace the climate change and sustainability agenda and the benefits it offers? And how do we bring national - and international - best practice to the fore?

    Where does Hertfordshire fit in?

    This year, Hertfordshire County Council will start to press the accelerator pedal on its Sustainable Hertfordshire Strategy 2020. Its aim is to make the council carbon neutral by 2030, with the whole county following, to reach net carbon zero before 2050.

    Clearly education has a vital role to play here. Across the UK, schools typically account for around 2% of greenhouse gas emissions. In Hertfordshire, they produce the equivalent of about 25,000 tonnes of CO2 each year - that’s around 15,000 cars worth of emissions annually.

    Reducing these direct emissions is obviously important. Yet teachers and schools can have an impact on sustainability that goes far beyond the school gates, through behaviour change. The key question is: what is the best route to follow?

    The whole school approach to sustainability

    There’s a spectrum of approaches to adopting sustainability – no one framework fits all. Probably the most challenging but rewarding route is a whole school programme, in which sustainability is embedded throughout, either by using themes or topics, or by the more ambitious route of changing the whole ethos of an education establishment.

    Though implementing the latter approach is not easy, research on its benefits shows that work is more likely to be sustained, even after major changes in personnel occur. And for those interested in following either of these routes, there are some excellent options to plug in to. One of the longest-running is probably the Eco-Schools programme, which has been going since 1994 and is reputedly one of the largest educational programmes on the planet.

    Based on pupil-led learning, the programme - which is suitable for early years to secondary and beyond - utilises a seven-step criteria, starting with setting up an eco-committee of pupils, staff and governors, performing an environmental review to create an action plan, and then finding curriculum links before informing and involving the wider community. The two last steps involve monitoring and evaluating school actions, and then creating an eco-code – a sort of mission statement that locks the message in for all. To help guide actions and learning, Eco-Schools also suggest 10 subject topics. There is clearly plenty going for their program: England has the most Eco-Schools in the world, with more than 70% of all schools in England registered and almost half having achieved the initial ‘Bronze Award’. You can also find oversees inspiration from several examples of international eco-schools projects.

    An alternative route is through Sustainability and Environmental Education or SEEd. Formerly the Council for Environmental Education, SEEd emerged in 2009 as an education charity which aims to support schools in putting sustainability and the environment at the centre of learning, to share best practice and encourage constant re-evaluation. SEEd provides a co-ordinator role and gives access to the latest resources and ideas, as well as professional development guidance. It has also launched the Sustainable Schools Alliance membership programme to network schools across the UK that are working towards whole school sustainability. The programme uses 9 topic “doorways” – in a similar approach to Eco-School’s subject topics – and offers baseline audit tools, plus planning frameworks to embed sustainability and learning for sustainability throughout the school. SEEd also provides a useful backgrounder on whole schools approaches which includes more details on the spectrum of approaches, and international exemplars.

    New kid on the block is the Green Schools Project which hopes to be piloting its programme in four schools in Waltham Forest this year and expanding after that. The idea is to encourage students to calculate their school’s carbon emissions through a cross-curricular education project, to create an eco-team to lead on carbon reduction projects and to provide training and support for teachers to develop curriculum links to help make the school a zero-carbon learning hub for the community.

    Key pointers for best practice

    Whichever programme is used, there are some fundamental pointers for best practice. Typical are those provided by consultant John Blewitt in a report titled Good practice in sustainable development education (SDE)  originally commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency. It may be almost 20 years old, but many of its findings are as relevant today as they were when it was written. Among Blewitt’s key conclusions are:

    “Success depends on a clear holistic understanding of what sustainability and SDE means ...”

    “… it is important to find creative and expressive ways of presentation and dissemination.”

    “SDE will make very limited progress without senior management support.“

    “Significant progress can only be achieved where there is effective leadership.... Commitment from senior management is vital. The encouragement and emergence of sustainability ‘champions’ among both staff and students is highly useful.”

    It also stresses the potential role of enrichment programmes, development of key skills and the introduction of programmes offering an SDE dimension including citizenship, equal opportunities and life skills, points to the role of networking and partnerships with other organisations, and extra-curricula and ‘fun’ events, international links and community outreach. “Linking the local with the global needs only a little imagination and knowledge in the first instance.”

    A more focused approach

    If the challenges of whole school transformation are daunting, there are also exciting, focused, programmes that will help schools take smaller steps towards sustainability, but which can still bring significant benefits.

    One such programme is Modeshift STARS which encourages schools across the country to join in a major effort to increase levels of sustainable and active travel. The scheme uses a stars accreditation scheme to inspire schools, and other organisations that have shown excellence in supporting cycling, walking and other forms of sustainable and active travel and then recognises best practice with awards. It uses ideas like Walking Bubbles and Park and Stride to help transform the school run, no matter how far from a school students live. For inspiration, Modeshift STARS has a number of case studies online, including Shepard Primary school in Hertfordshire.

    The School Streets Initiative takes a cross-agency approach by working with the community and local council to put temporary restrictions on vehicles in roads outside a school at drop-off and pick-up times. The most successful examples encourage a healthier lifestyle through exercise, while cutting local air pollution and increasing safety for pedestrians and cyclists. So far the initiative has proved popular in urban areas, stretching from Surrey to Enfield in the south east.  

    Energy saving has also proved a popular route for schools. In the last decade, many schools have been able to put solar panels on their rooftops thanks to the government’s Feed In-Tariff (FIT), coupled with community-based co-operatives that sprang up to help out. Now, with the FIT ended, not-for-profit groups like The Schools Energy Coop hold periodic funding rounds and have already funded panels on at least 2 schools in the county. There are a number of other co-operatives and charities that can advise.

    Remember, cutting school energy use will do more than just hit county targets – it will provide a double whammy by benefitting the bottom line too. According to Dept for Education figures, the average cost of energy per UK school is about £27,000 a year. By paying careful attention to sustainability, secondary schools could save up to 20 per cent of their energy bills annually – worth a cool £20,000 in some cases.

    Other focused programmes include FairTrade Schools, the Plastic Free Schools and Ocean Schools projects set up by Surfers Against Sewage, along with a variety of gardening and tree planting resources such as Tree Tools for Schools from the Woodland Trust and the Tree Council.

    Exemplars of best practice

    Finally, just as important are finding exemplars of good practice. There are plenty of examples out there, from independent establishments such as Highgate School which has developed an environmental sustainability strategy that has pulled together a whole school approach, plus tools like Meat-Free Mondays and Fast-Fashion Free February, as well as addressing local transport issues for pupils, and has even set up its own “Make a Change” web guide for students to get started at their own schools.

    Here in Hertfordshire, Sustainable St Albans has pooled knowledge from local environment groups, teachers, governors and trainers to create a Sustainable Schools information and resource hub supporting local schools.

    Meanwhile lessons learned from Hertfordshire’s own work to develop sustainable schools will be useful to others hoping to establish best practice. These include the sustainable exemplar primary school, Howe Dell plus the impact of low-cost energy saving measures at Francis Combe School in Watford . And we should expect valuable ideas to come from a new purpose-built “net carbon zero” primary school planned for Buntingford, which should open by 2023.

    One step at a time

    If there’s one take away from this, it is don’t be deterred by the scale of the challenge. You don’t have to do everything at once – small acts can make a huge difference now and in the long-term. Take the meat-free Monday idea, for instance. Such a simple switch can bring new experiences to many, make a significant difference to carbon emissions nationally, and add life-long benefits to the health of pupils and their families. Basic behavioural changes like this, along with a new enthusiasm for recycling, or an awareness of energy waste, for instance, travel home with students, multiplying the impact that you and your school have on the community. American anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Right now, more than ever before, Mead’s group of citizens are teachers.

    Blog authored by Ben Crystall

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