Green schools

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Your weekly guide to a whole-school issue

Need a bit of extra cash for textbooks? Then try switching off the lights or flushing the toilets using rainwater. Government figures show that some schools face energy bills up to 60 per cent higher than others, while some pay twice as much for their water than their cost-conscious peers. But it's not just about saving costs. With global warming, the disappearance of fossil fuels and increasingly stretched landfill facilities, schools are being encouraged to do their bit for future generations, while experts point out that there's a wealth of curriculum material in sustainable education. But what does it take to go green? And is it worth putting in a few long-life light bulbs and fixing those leaky taps?

On the right track

The green school campaign starts well outside the school gates: 40 per cent of primary and 20 per cent of secondary pupils are driven to school, most travelling less than two miles. Yet research by University College London in 2003 showed that children got more benefit from walking to school every day than from a weekly two-hour PE session. The good news is, that with grants available for schools with a complete travel plan, and childhood obesity in the news, increasing numbers of schools are encouraging children to walk or cycle, alone or as part of a walking or cycling "bus". Research due to be published at the end of this year by the charity Sustrans, which encourages people to walk, cycle and use public transport, shows that schools that have had time to implement a travel plan properly can reduce car use by 20 to 25 per cent. "And it's not just about health," says Paul Osborne, director of Sustrans. "There are the issues of oil supplies and climate change. Sustainable travel will become even more important in the future, and children need to learn the good habits their parents missed out on."

Getting people out of the comfort of their cars is not easy, but there are some simple steps schools can take. Having good, secure cycle storage and safe access points for pedestrians is a start, and taking time to explore the issue with parents should forestall some of the angry letters from committed car users. Sustrans recommends appointing a "school champion" to review transport in and around school, and each local authority has a school travel adviser who should be able to help on issues such as parking restrictions, footpath widening and speed limits.

Money down the drain?

Schools spend around pound;70 million a year on water, an average of more than pound;2,500 a school. A large secondary can spend as much as pound;20,000; and, typically, flush water accounts for 40 per cent of consumption. But a few simple measures can save water, and money. Check for leaks and get the flow reduced on your taps, swap to taps that shut off automatically after use or change to spray heads, which use 50 per cent less water. And even if your crumbling 1960s building doesn't allow for high-tech rainwater flushes in the toilets, replacing old-fashioned urinal flushing systems which sluice water day and night (and through the weekend) with intelligent flushing systems can make a real difference. Finally, keep an eye on your meter. Reading it last thing at night and first thing in the morning will show whether leaking pipes or dripping taps are wasting water overnight. Large meters attract bigger standing charges than smaller ones, so once you've reduced consumption, installing a smaller meter might save even more money.

Eco-schools, an environmental project founded after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and which works with more than 4,500 registered eco-schools in the UK, estimates that a package of small water-saving measures can save a school of 600 pupils around pound;5,000 a year. More importantly, having the pupils monitor water use gets them into green habits. Peter Gibson of Encams, which runs Eco-schools in the UK, says: "Children take home ideas they've learned in school and start teaching their families and communities about environmental issues. Their enthusiasm rubs off; we have children teaching adults for a change."

Taking the long view

The more than 40,000 school buildings across the UK are responsible for a quarter of the public sector's energy costs. As with water, big savings can be made: some school heating systems waste 40 per cent of the energy they burn. And Encams estimates that pound;100 million a year of public money could be saved if schools were more energy efficient.

Schools in the sunny south might like to consider solar energy: Ilfracombe college in Devon installed eight solar panels earlier this year. A bit bleaker up north? Then why not consider wind power, the UK is Europe's windiest country. Cassop primary school in Durham became the first wind-powered school in Britain when it installed an 18-metre, 50-kilowatt wind turbine in 1998 (see case study). On windy days the system even exports extra energy into the national grid. Such technology can be a long-term investment: it will take Cassop 25 years to recoup the pound;100,000 cost of installing its turbine. "But saving money was not a major motivation," explains headteacher Jim McManners. "It was about finding ways of bringing sustainable issues to the forefront."

Looking after the pennies

Even small changes can free up money in a cash-strapped budget: energy-saving light bulbs, for example, can save pound;10 per bulb per year. Turning down the heating thermostat by one degree can reduce heating bills by 10 per cent. Closing doors, turning off lights in unused rooms, re-arranging after-school clubs so they're not scattered around the school, and turning computers off rather than leaving them on screensavers can all save energy. "Schools tend to be fairly poorly run in terms of energy use," says Trewin Restorick, environmental charity director of Global Action Plan. "So some simple measures can make a real difference." As part of its Action at School programme, Global Action Plan has been working on small, practical changes with 20 schools and has seen an average saving of pound;9,400 per school per year. But some bigger schools are saving pound;15,000. "It just shows the enormous potential," says Mr Restorick. And if the thought of some extra cash is not incentive enough, naming and shaming the wastrels may spur them into action; from 2006, European legislation will require all schools to publish their energy consumption figures.

Waste not, want not

Although about half of our waste could be recycled, we manage only around 12 per cent. And with landfill sites quickly becoming full to overflowing, and studies showing associated health risks from living near them, that means more environmental damage from incinerators or rubbish dumps out at sea. Research by Eco-schools found UK schools spend pound;39 million a year on collecting litter, pound;56 million on emptying bins and pound;150 million on stationery. Which means a lot of potential for recycling, even when the figures are less substantial.

Minsterworth primary school in Gloucestershire has 52 pupils. "But it was buy a bigger bin each week or get sorted on the recycling," says headteacher Jackie Etheridge. "We make significant savings, around pound;20 a month, and it gets the children into the recycling habit." The spur for Minsterworth's recycling project came six years ago, when the school entered a competition to design a recycling system for drinks cans. "It was never a design we could use, but it made the children aware of the issues," says Ms Etheridge. Now the school has baskets for recycling paper, packaging, ink cartridges and mobile phones, as well as aluminium foil (which can fetch around pound;300 a tonne) with proceeds helping to fund a local adult learning centre.

Environmental groups emphasise a "small is beautiful" approach to recycling: reusing envelopes, using both sides of sheets of paper, making double-sided photocopies, reusing folders, working with electronic documents, and making sure empty water bottles don't go to waste.

Visions of the future

For some schools, the green tomorrow is here today. Kingsmead primary in Northwich, Cheshire, for example, which opened this September, is constructed mainly of timber. It has an emphasis on natural light, uses recycled wood chips for fuel, collects rainwater to flush the toilets and is heated by solar energy. The "intelligent" building can close windows if it rains, open them when a classroom becomes stuffy and draw blinds if the sun is too strong. In the grounds, pupils grow organic vegetables for the kitchen. "It is beautiful," says head Catriona Stewart.

But while the Department for Education and Skills's Classrooms for the Future project has encouraged new design ideas, and some local authority new-build projects are going green, schools subject to private public partnerships (PPPs) are often less fortunate. North Lanarkshire LEA, for example, which has the largest number of schools in the UK to have been awarded Eco-schools's prestigious green flag, had hoped to include wind turbines and solar panels in the plans for 24 new PPP schools. These have been dropped from the specifications and are subject to the local authority finding extra funding. Research in 2002 by Professor Cedric Cullingford at Huddersfield University and Brian Edwards, professor of architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, suggests North Lanarkshire is not alone, and designs for new schools are often slow to adopt the green message.

"Architects are constrained by assumptions of what schools should be like, which is often based on our own experience at school. There are some exceptions but, generally, sustainable issues are not being addressed," says Professor Cullingford.

Getting results

But designing "green" schools may turn out to be worth the extra time and money involved. The Cullingford and Edwards research found clear links between the design of buildings and pupil attainment: in the "green" schools studied for the research, Sats results improved by 2 to 4 per cent, Ofsted reports were generally more favourable than for comparable "non-green" neighbours, and absence rates fell. The results were particularly striking with primary children, who tended to stay in the same space all day.

The study, largely based on schools in Hampshire built between 1984 and 1996, showed that "green" schools cost around 12 per cent more to build but suggested they were worth the extra expense. In schools built with natural materials, teachers were less stressed, pupils were more relaxed and parents felt more welcomed. "The greener the school, the greater the learning benefits," says Professor Edwards. The research also found that some of the most common elements of "green" building design, such as a central atrium to control light and air flow, became important social spaces. "They are good for casually meeting up, for a sense of community, for displays and for informal teaching," says Professor Edwards. "So what begins with an environmental justification ends up having many accidental benefits."

Environmental or sustainable?

One of the big advantages of tackling green issues is the material it gives for curriculum work. At Kingsmead, the whole building can be used as a teaching resource. Water pipes are transparent so pupils can track the flow of rainwater, and classroom laptops are linked to the computers that control school conditions so pupils can get to grips with how it all works.

Even the CCTV has a life beyond security patrols; the cameras are used for watching wildlife in the grounds. But even without the advantages of a new-build school, environmental organisations have plenty of advice for using practical changes for curriculum ideas, from developing sculpture trails, to recording energy consumption data and researching renewable resources.

The only difficulty might be in deciding what to call your new curriculum packages. "There's some debate about where 'environmental education' ends and 'education for sustainable development' begins. Or are they are the same thing?" says Nick Jones, head of policy and programmes for the Council for Environmental Education. Environmental educationists tend to focus on practical green issues and encourage field trips and hands-on activities, while education for sustainable development (ESD) is often seen as having wider implications about social and economic development in the UK and abroad. Most green projects involve a bit of both, but ESD is now a compulsory component in the curriculums for science, geography, design and technology and citizenship, and the DfES has funded the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to develop a website that includes material for incorporating ESD into other subjects.

Tricky teenagers

Although many primary schools are geared up for tackling green issues in the curriculum, organisations often find it more difficult to run successful projects with secondary schools. This can be because cross-curricular opportunities are rare and pupils tend to feel less ownership of particular rooms or buildings. But it's also an age thing, says Peter Gibson of Encams, which runs the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign as well as Eco-schools. "With dropping litter, for example, the biggest offenders are teenage boys. It's an instinctive reaction and they feel no shame about it. They don't always see it as a big issue."

The Sustainable Secondary Schools Project, piloted with six secondary schools in Scotland since 2000, draws together a formidable group of partners including WWF Scotland, the RSPB, the Royal Institute of Town Planners, Oxfam and the Civic Trust to look at all aspects of sustainable development, from built environment to transport and technology, and the connections between them.

Schools have found the project a good way of inspiring a difficult age group. At Currie high school in Edinburgh, part of the pilot, cross-curricular work in the first two secondary years has had a knock-on effect higher up the school. "When children meet sustainability issues later on, it's much more meaningful," says headteacher Alison Nind. "And it's been in-house CPD for the staff too. Some of them have found they are highlighting sustainability issues within their own curriculums."

Small steps on a big planet

According to most organisations, it's usually one teacher's enthusiasm that kick-starts a green project. The key to long-term success seems to be getting everyone at school to buy into the idea. "That's much harder," suggests Global Action Plan's Trewin Restorick. "We find the most successful projects are those that are embedded into the management plan, and where everyone's enthusiastic, especially the bursar." But bursars should not expect much immediate return for their enthusiasm. The DfES sustainable education strategy has no funding attached and, since March this year, revenue from landfill tax, some of which had been handed to environmental groups to promote recycling in schools, has been diverted to local authorities, with little being used to fund educational projects. "So it's rather an empty strategy," says Mr Restorick. "And short-sighted.

Because any investment by government in creating greener schools will have a bigger financial return."

But it's not all bad news. Many environmental organisations are convinced that schools are greening up. They recommend regularly measuring figures for waste and energy consumption so improvements can be tracked annually and it becomes clear what steps are making a difference. This helps boost morale, and shows where schools might need help. "What schools really value is advice on nitty-gritty practicalities," says Mr Restorick. "Most schools have the imagination to make improvements and just need practical support.

Once they get started, they can be massively creative in thinking of ways of implementing and communicating the green message."

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