How to use the DfE Climate Change Strategy to become a more sustainable school

Sustainability author Dr David Dixon picks out his highlights from the DfE strategy and sets out why having a sustainability ethos is the only sensible option for schools

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update

At COP26 the Department for Education announced its draft Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy which outlined five ‘action areas’. Whereas before there was only very skeletal guidance along the lines of emphasising that schools had the freedom to pursue these areas if they so wished, this new guidance has the potential to go much further. Indeed, there has not been such a radical approach since the Labour government of the noughties aimed for every school to be a sustainable school by the year 2020.

So, let’s have a look at some areas and see what implications there are for school leaders.

Climate education

Schools need to ensure that there is a better understanding of climate change facts linked to a greater appreciation of nature and practical opportunities to participate in activities to increase climate resilience and enhance biodiversity.

This implies that ‘knowledge is power and that subjects such as geography and science should drive it – which fits with the current Ofsted view and also corresponds to the ‘deep dives’ which now occur in inspections.

The practical application of this aspect could take place across the campus and community in terms of biodiversity projects – for example, planting a wildflower meadow or growing fruit and vegetables. To consolidate this action, there will be a Climate Leader’s Award scheme akin to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The education estate

In a move to actively encourage schools towards zero-carbon, the DfE’s strategy proposes the implementation of retrofits –  LED lighting, insulation, eco-heating and cooling systems – and also efforts to increase campus biodiversity.

On top of this, trials of ‘biophilic’ primary schools are mentioned – environments which are more closely connected to nature, or the outdoors – in an effort to investigate what effect green infrastructure has on health and wellbeing.

There will also be a review of school food standards to see how carbon footprints and waste can be reduced; all this to be undertaken as part of a supported school Climate Action Plan which, presumably, will have a format to follow.

Under the proposed strategy any DfE instigated new builds (not already contracted) will be net zero in operation by 2023. By involving the children in these aspects the curriculum can be enhanced by ‘real-life’ experiences and so this readily lends itself to linking with action areas one and two.

Putting benefits to the environment aside for the moment, embracing sustainability can save schools money on utilities, enhance the curriculum and bring benefits to the community. Many local authorities already offer an energy reduction and retrofit service for schools and there are also opportunities for the independent sector to access commercial packages, with pay back over time using savings made on running costs. Hopefully, more funding and assistance will be forthcoming to fast-track this process for many more education establishments.

Operations and supply chains

This strand emphasises that the management of procurement and waste is a prerequisite to substantially lowering carbon footprints. It talks about adhering to the National Procurement Policy Statement (see LGA, 2014) and the Social Value Model (HM Government, 2020) both of which outline how to tackle climate change and reduce waste and also show how this can enhance quality of life. Although aimed at local and national government departments, a school’s business manager would likely find them useful reading.

Apart from energy, procurement in this area also covers all the other ‘stuff’ schools need to run, from a paperclip to a photocopier. Each item needs to be scrutinised so that judgements can be made as to whether it is really needed and, if so, how and where it might be sourced. Schools are often rammed with redundant equipment and resources, and reusing and repurposing can be overlooked.

The strategy also talks of support for schools through working with WRAP, an organisation that supports the sustainable use of resources, and the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs. Procurement also includes consideration of the provenance of goods and whether they come from ethical sources. Adherence to fair trade practices  can help with this.

The carbon footprint of transportation also needs to be assessed. This can include how pupils and staff get to school (see the Sustrans School Travel Planning Toolkit). Once again, all this is rich pickings for children if incorporated into the curriculum.

Rhetoric to reality?

It would be easy to be cynical about the DfE draft strategy and to think of it as merely a sop to COP. However, I think school leaders should take it at face value and see it as a mandate for action and a signal that sustainability is no longer a Cinderella area for schools. Sustainability can drive school improvement through having the methodology for improving many aspects of leadership, teaching and learning and general wellbeing (as well as saving the planet!)

Above all, it can prepare young people for an uncertain future by providing them with vital knowledge, empathy with the natural world and critical thinking skills. This doesn’t mean teaching gloom and doom, or promoting a sackcloth and ashes existence, but saying that we all have the power to make changes for the better now. It means everyone can thrive and not just survive. If schools and education generally get this right then there really is hope for the future.

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