‘Schools should lead the way on climate change’

Schools should be at the vanguard in the battle against climate change – but they’re lagging behind, writes Callum Jacobs. A lack of government support on sustainability means that it is up to school leaders to seize the initiative with their own planet-saving policies
15th November 2019, 12:05am
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Callum Jacobs


‘Schools should lead the way on climate change’


No one today can claim they haven't heard the message on climate change. Every student, every teacher and every chief executive of a multi-academy trust knows that we need to be doing more to help save the planet.

From serial truant Greta Thunberg, sailing the Atlantic to plead with world leaders to children walking out of lessons to attend climate strikes to teachers risking their jobs to join Extinction Rebellion protests, we all know that things need to change.

Schools, perhaps more than any other kind of organisation, should be at the vanguard of that change. Schools should be leading the way, taking practical measures in terms of how they operate, and by shifting the mindset of the next generation.

But, mostly, they're not. Why is it that schools so often lag behind when it comes to the things we all know we should be doing to save the world?

Let's start with the good news. Schools have not been entirely idle with regards to improving their environmental credentials, and over the past decade most have put in place a range of basic measures. Most schools have made progress on recycling, on fitting energy-saving systems that turn off the lights when they're not being used, on switching from paper towels in the toilets to hand dryers, and - particularly popular in primaries - on supporting walk-to-school days and in-house vegetable plots.

The school garden is the perfect example of how one measure can have multiple positive outcomes. A school launching its own gardening club creates the possibility of providing seasonal produce for the canteen, or just planting a few more CO2 gobbling trees around the grounds.

Beyond the immediate benefits, getting students involved in growing things can play a big part in helping to change attitudes towards the environment. In an inspirational TED Talk that every student should watch, urban eco warrior Ron Finley explains his unusual approach to changing the world by planting cabbages. Admittedly, not all students want to start digging about in the dirt, but reluctant gardeners might be encouraged by Finley's brand of guerrilla growing, adding a touch of attractive, managed deviance to the enterprise.

The school canteen is another place where simple changes can be made, to reduce waste and encourage more environmentally friendly habits in students. Beef consumption is one of the worst offenders for creating greenhouse gases, so it would be a significant step for schools to promote a meat-free day every week in the canteen. The campaign Meat-Free Monday provides advice for schools wanting to have a vegan or vegetarian day each week.

Schools should also be talking to their catering services about the use of excessive packaging, the number of plastic drinks bottles being sold, about using seasonal, local produce, and about composting food waste.

Then there are the more off-the-wall ideas. What about installing treadmills and exercise bikes in the playground, wired up to the main generator? This could bring multiple benefits: younger students who can't stop fidgeting in class could burn off excess energy, while the older ones starting to worry about their looks could fit in a quick workout.

You could even have them in classrooms. Maybe not every student on a cycle or treadmill (it might make it hard to do much writing), but how about one per class? Anyone who wanted to take a short break from their work could hop on the class treadmill for five minutes. I've long been a fan of "wriggle time" in lessons: a micro-break to help children refocus. And, this way, they're doing something useful.

What about a paperless school? Why can't schools make it the default option that all homework is submitted online? It may seem like a pipe dream, but let's just call it an aspirational target.

So what's stopping schools from being exemplars of energy efficiency and ambassadors of environmental excellence? It's certainly not a lack of will: ask any headteacher and they'll say they want to do more. The problems are the usual suspects: lack of money, lack of time and some unhelpful political decisions.

There undoubtedly seems to be a lack of emphasis on green issues coming from above. After the government's Building Schools for the Future scheme fell victim to post-2008 austerity measures, the aim to build a new generation of eco-friendly schools stalled. In a similar vein, government grants for fitting solar panels were scrapped earlier this year. So, although schools can often get assistance from private companies to help with the finances, it isn't as easy as it should be.

In 2012, the Department for Education produced a set of guidelines: "Top tips for sustainability in schools". While it's generally good advice - such as suggesting that the canteen serves seasonal produce and encouraging schools to put recycling bins in every classroom - it doesn't offer much practical support. There are frequent circulars and documents published by the DfE and whoever else, telling schools why teaching about sustainability and global environmental awareness is so vital. And there's certainly no shortage of lesson plans and class projects available to make this easier to achieve. The problem is that schools rarely have the time or the cash to pick up these ideas.

In the DfE's strategy for education 2015-2020, published in 2016 and setting out the key goals for education in the UK, the only mention of sustainability was in the pledge to "drive sustainable school improvement": a reference to academic performance rather than the planet's wellbeing.

When I contacted Ofsted to ask if it was looking, during its inspections, at how schools were working to become more sustainable, the reply referred to the new education inspection framework and to the fact that "inspectors will look beyond data and test results to understand how schools are preparing children and learners for the next stage of their lives".

This sounds well meaning, if a little vague, but perhaps more telling is the fact that the new inspection framework gives no specific mention of a school's requirement to address its own impact on the environment. In our data-driven climate, if it's not being measured, then schools, sadly, may not see it as a priority. We all know that the pressure on headteachers regarding results and the next Ofsted inspection is immense; for a headteacher, failing an inspection can seem like the end of the world. The irony is that, having put so much energy into exam results, heads may find that the end of the world is a little nearer.

Then there are the problems associated with contracting out services to private companies. For them, there's often a tension between needing to make money and trying to address environmental concerns.

Take catering services, for example. Currently the School Food Standards advice mentions all the issues already identified: reducing waste, cutting back on single-use plastic and having meat-free days. But there's not much more being done to drive these measures forwards. Recently, the Soil Association criticised the government's guidelines as "weak" and encouraged schools to take the initiative themselves.

Another problem of having services delivered by private companies is that, once services have been contracted out, there's usually a fairly hands-off approach taken by the school. But someone has to make sure that the canteen and the maintenance team are taking issues of sustainability seriously.

There are, of course, some schools that are working hard to go green. I spoke to the chief executive of St John the Baptist Catholic Multi-Academy Trust, Brian Conway, whose schools in East Anglia are doing more than most to reduce their carbon footprint. At Notre Dame High School in Norwich, they have solar panels and electric car-charging points for use by the maintenance team and staff members, and have removed as much single-use plastic as possible from the canteen.

Conway also tries to ensure that the meetings he's involved in are paperless. He points out that schools in general are a long way behind the rest of society when it comes to their obsessive use of paper, in classrooms, exams and for general administration. "What other organisations today still rely so heavily on paper rather than digital formats and cloud storage?" he asks.

Currently, for change to happen, we are relying on passionate and driven leaders like Conway. It seems crazy that schools aren't leading the way in promoting sustainable living. Schools have an amazing combination of in-house skills, resources and manpower. The design and technology department will have geniuses who can build extraordinary things out of Perspex and MDF; the geography department is guaranteed to have someone whose third-year university project was on reducing environmental impact; the maths and science departments can run the numbers to work out the most efficient schemes to adopt. If schools dedicated just half a day off-timetable per term to working on green projects, in the average secondary school that would be around 10,000 person hours per year. Yes, some of those hours will be Year 7s, who may not be up to much with regard to physical labour - but you can bet they'll be keen.

The benefits of this would not just be reducing schools' energy consumption and carbon footprints. We'd also be giving the students a massively important message. These students would then take that message forward to their homes, their future jobs and the rest of their lives.

In his comprehensive resource for schools, "Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures", David Hicks, formerly a professor in the School of Education at Bath Spa University, suggests that schools fall into one of several categories with regard to their environmental actions, from business as usual through to token gestures to committed action.

Currently, far too many schools are at the wrong end of this scale. Schools, first and foremost, need to put someone in charge of managing sustainability: someone who has the drive and, crucially, the power to get things done. Most schools have a member of the senior leadership team responsible for checking that all the classroom displays are looking good, but not someone tackling the school's impact on the environment. As the flood waters rise, we want to be able to say that we did more than just make the school look pretty.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves the question: what's the purpose of education? Education is about producing active, engaged citizens, and making our world a better, fairer, more sustainable place in which to live. When we only focus on the next Ofsted inspection and the next set of results, we risk losing sight of the forest for all the trees. And, if we don't change that approach now, the trees and very possibly the whole forest might soon be gone.

Callum Jacobs is a supply teacher in the UK

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "Schools are out in the cold as the world heats up"

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