Climate change: the time to act in your school is now

We speak to Helen Burge, deputy chief operations officer at the Priory Learning Trust, about her passion for sustainability and why putting in place sustainable projects and actions in your school is not only good for the climate but also for your school‘s budget

So, if you could just start by telling us a little bit about your trust.

I work for The Priory Learning Trust, which is a relatively new multi-academy trust (MAT) in the southwest of England. It’s about four years old, we’ve got 5,000 students and about 760 staff. We’re based in North Somerset and Somerset. We have two secondaries and two primaries in Weston-Super-Mare – these include a speech and language base, an all-year-round nursery and a preschool. Then we’ve got one secondary in Burnham and Highbridge with a sixth form, and three primary schools in that hub.

What is your role in the MAT?

I’m the deputy chief operations officer.I report to the chief operations officer and I support and work with the head of finance, head of HR, head of IT and head of estates and compliance. The operations managers report to me, so I’m the link between the central team and the operations in each school, helping the managers to deliver operations successfully. If there’s an issue, I help solve it. I’ve a got a particular focus on internal scrutiny, supporting the development of our preschool provision and, also, sustainability! 

What was it that first drew your personal attention to sustainability?

When I was growing up in the 1980s it was all about acid rain, and the impact of acid rain on the environment. I can remember, when I was growing up, seeing on the news big swathes of forest being destroyed because of the acid rain, and then also seeing the famines in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, so that drew my attention to the devastating global impacts of climate change. And then, when I became a mum 20-odd years ago, I started to think, ‘What’s going to happen to my kids, and what about their kids if we don’t reverse climate change?’ I want to look my grandchild in the eye and say, ‘I’ve tried everything.’

Due to COP26 the global community have recently been focusing on climate change. If you were having a conversation with someone who unaware of what contributes to climate change, and what its impacts are, how would you explain it?

I think the most important thing to emphasise is that climate change is a global issue, and we contribute to that global issue every time we travel somewhere, eat red meat or choose to use single-use plastic. There are areas of the world that are going to be uninhabitable in 15 years’ time because of the massive increase in temperatures, which means that they can’t produce their own food, they can’t live safely, they won’t have access to clean, fresh, water easily. So, if you are worried about refugees coming into the country, you need to be aware that we are currently creating our own global refugee issue. We’ve got the power to change that, and it is unfair that we are making decisions that are going to have this awful, devastating impact on people’s lives. Just because we aren’t the ones experiencing the impact doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.

You recently spoke at our EdExec LIVE South event and you mentioned there that putting sustainability at the forefront of the agenda would not only help the climate but also help schools. Tell us a bit more about what you meant.

You can bring about financial savings by making sustainable changes. For example, if you do a water audit and discover that you have a minor water leak somewhere, if you get it repaired you’ll see an improvement in your water bills. You can also think about who you’re procuring supplies from. If you’ve got a supplier that sends a ridiculous amount of cardboard for a small item, or sends multiple items in lots of different packaging rather than in a big bulk, you’ve then got to pay for that cardboard to be disposed of. So, if we consider our procurement cycle, our suppliers, and how green or sustainable they are, we then will see a reduction in our waste costs.

The biggest cost after staffing is energy, and using more sustainable energy can also save you money. If you’ve got LED lights, you can put them on timers and set your management system to turn them off earlier or later. You can also monitor your energy consumption, which means that you can double-check that you’re not using the same amount of energy in the half-term breaks and in the holidays, and you can make financial statements that way. Also, there could be an opportunity to generate income – maybe with solar panels or wind turbines if you’re in the right location.

When you spoke at the event you also talked about grouping sustainable actions together. What are these groups?

It can be overwhelming when you have massive list of things that you need to do. To make it less overwhelming you can group them into the following categories – major projects, quick wins and thankless tasks.

Major projects are things like decarbonising your heat, or maybe putting in electric vehicle charging points, and they’re not going to happen overnight. Major projects are high effort but also high impact, and you need to put these on a long-term time scale for implementation.

Quick wins are tasks that are low effort but high impact. For example, putting more recycling bins around your site, or changing your procurement so that you’re not going for that cardboard-heavy supplier, you’re going for a different one – looking at your suppliers’ green credentials, and maybe reducing the amount of single-use plastic within your school, or reducing laminating. So, in your action plan, you’d deal with the quick wins and first and then have the major projects going on long-term in the background.

Thankless tasks are those things that are high effort and low impact and these should be avoided. It could be that, for some schools, putting in electric vehicle charging points is one of those things that takes a high amount of effort but has a low impact, because you can’t put enough points in to make it worthwhile.

Tasks may be categorised differently depending on the setting. For some schools switching to a greener energy supply will be a quick win; rather than having a brown energy source which relies on coal-powered electricity, you’re going for pure green electricity – solar, wind, nuclear, that sort of thing. However, in a different setting, this might be a major project because you might have to streamline this with other contracts across your trust, and other energy contracts.

As well as grouping actions, you also discussed grouping stakeholders. How does this work?

It’s basically a simple stakeholder mapping. You look at those people who have low to high interest, and those people who have low to high influence. You want to be concentrating on those with high interest and high influence, because they are your top priority. They will be the people who can help champion the green agenda within your school and create enthusiasm in other people.

These stakeholders might include the whole of your eco-schools committee; you might have a geography teacher in there, or there could be a member of staff who regularly attends protests about climate change. You might want to tap into them, and their network of influence and interest.

You’ve also got to be mindful of those who have low influence and low interest and think, ‘Okay, I’m not going to concentrate my efforts on them yet’ – and then think about those people you might have to ‘handle with care’. They have high influence but low interest; for example, if you had a CEO who was a climate change denier – a person with high influence, but low interest in climate change, leading your organisation – it’s going to be really hard to bring about changes within your trust.

So, apart from maybe having a CEO who is a climate denier (!) what would you say are the biggest challenges faced by schools trying to bring sustainability to the forefront of the agenda?

I think that the biggest challenges are time and budget. School business leaders are time-poor which is why you need to make use of other people who also want to champion the cause. Then there are the financial implications, especially in relation to capital projects. For example, if you’ve got a leaking roof you’re going to prioritise replacing that rather than changing your heating system. I think that sort of conflict that is really hard to manage – but, if you are going to have to replace a leaking roof, make sure it’s really good so that you can put solar panels on top! That’s all I would say to that.

It can also be quite deflating when you apply for grants and you’re not successful, but you’ve got to keep up that momentum and you’ve got to keep up that enthusiasm – which can really hard to do when you’ve got the day to day job to do. That’s why it’s key to get other people involved, then it’s not all on you to try and solve these issues!

When it does all feel overwhelming, what are the small steps you’d recommend SBLs can take to kick off their sustainability journey?

I’ve talked about speaking to people – speak to your trustees and governors, speak to experts, about energy in particular, identify your ‘Powerful Allies’. You could just dust off your display energy certificate report and look at the recommendations in there; then you can see whether you’ve implemented all those recommendations or not. You could also look at the compliance and servicing record of your boilers and heating systems and double-check that you’re keeping on top of that.

It’s best to use the evidence that you’ve already got within your school, so you don’t necessarily to commission more reports. Speak to experts and define your sustainability strategy. In our trust we’ve started small and we’ve linked our strategy to the eco-schools framework. The first year of our sustainability plan was to audit ourselves, including our waste, water and energy consumption, to see what the data told us. You might have all that information somewhere already, or you might need to speak to your water company for them to come and do a water audit, or a waste audit.

Find out where you’re currently at, look at your intensity ratio if you’ve done a streamline energy carbon report for your year-end financial accounts, and just think, ‘How can I reduce our carbon footprint?’

I’d also talk to other schools in your local area about what they’ve done, and what has worked well for them, because it could be that they switched to a particular supplier for something, and have realised some great changes, and all you have to do is copy their lead.

So, looking to the future, what are your sustainable hopes for the next five years?

For the trust, I would like us to have decarbonised our heating systems, and to have put a mechanism in place so that we can help any new schools joining their trust to decarbonise their heating systems. I would like single-use plastic to be completely gone, and for it to be normal for people to take their own water bottle with them, and normal for people to refill water bottles. I would also like it to be normal that people don’t eat meat every day. Change can happen – and I hope it happens quickly. As a country I hope that we can help other countries which will, in turn, help the schools and students in other countries. I hope we can help them cope with the changes in the climate, which are having a really negative impact on them.

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