Using the DfE Climate Change Strategy to develop your school's sustainability ethos

Written by: Dr David Dixon | Published:
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The DfE’s sustainability and climate change strategy sets out a range of actions across five key areas. Author of Leadership for Sustainability, Dr David Dixon, picks out his highlights and sets out why having a sustainability ethos is the only sensible option for schools



At COP26, the Department for Education (DfE, 2021a) 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 the five areas and see what implications there are for school leaders.


Action area 1: 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 could take place across the campus and community in terms of biodiversity projects, e.g. planting a wildflower meadow or growing fruit and vegetables. To consolidate this action, there will be a “Climate Leaders Award” scheme akin to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. This is out for separate consultation, so watch this space.

There is also a global learning element and a call for young people to be “truly global citizens, able to take positive steps to improve their local communities, their country and their planet”. To achieve this there is the aim for schools to have “free access to high-quality curriculum resources in all phases and subjects” to aid teachers. Teachers themselves should expect to receive more training in this field and be the “best supported teachers in the world … to give all pupils the knowledge and skills to build a better and fairer world for future generations”.



Further reading & listening

Responding to COP26: A robust cross-curricular approach to climate education. How do teachers make sense of the decisions emerging from COP26? Alan Kinder says clear curriculum thinking will be required and offers ideas for ensuring a robust approach to climate change education: Click here to read.

Environmental sustainability: Actions secondary schools can take: The views of young people have helped to create a new manifesto for environmental sustainability in secondary education. Dr Elizabeth Rushton and Dr Lynda Dunlop explain. Click here to read.

The SecEd Podcast: For more on how we can reduce carbon emissions and support eco-work in schools, listen to our podcast episode from August 2021, which include a range of ideas, tips and advice from schools involved in the Let’s Go Zero campaign: Click here to listen



Action area 2: Green skills and careers

We are already seeing a rapid expansion in the area of “green jobs”. This includes not just relatively new industries in the area of renewables, recycling and waste, but an expansion and/or revamp of established industries, e.g. engineering, biology, horticulture, arboriculture, fashion, construction, finance and investment, law etc.

The DfE envisages further and higher education “teaching the skills of the future, (to) develop research and drive innovation to develop solutions … and nurture future leaders”. The emphasis is on STEM subjects and links to the aims of the Skills for Jobs White Paper published in January (DfE, 2021b). This set out how the government wishes to “transform the post-16 landscape” by offering a so-called Lifetime Skills guarantee, whereby people can access funding and training from a variety of providers according to their needs.

To feed this system schools at all levels will be expected to place more emphasis on STEM, tap into the Climate Leaders Award scheme and make their campuses part of the new National Education Nature Park project. The park initiative will encourage pupils to get involved in the natural world by increasing biodiversity in the grounds of their school via small steps such as installing bird-feeders.

The secondary T level qualifications will need to help students to access training and jobs, including Apprenticeships, in the green sector as a viable alternative to A levels. By implication, this must also mean that a greater proportion of A levels would need to be STEM to lend themselves more readily to the expectations placed on further and higher education to assist the new green economy. Vocational training should no longer be the poor relation.

Primary children would need to become more aware of green jobs in the same way they might have a topic on “People Who Help Us” (firefighters, doctors etc). This could then be built upon in secondary, further and higher education when it comes to subject and career aspirations.


Action area 3: The education estate

In a move to actively encourage schools towards zero-carbon, the DfE’s strategy proposes the implementation of retrofits (e.g. 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 (i.e., 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 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.


Action area 4: Operations and supply chains

This links strongly to area 3 and 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 this area also covers all the other “stuff” schools need to run from a paper-clip 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 (Defra). Procurement also includes consideration of the provenance of goods and whether they come from ethical sources. Adherence to Fair Trade practices (see further information) 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.


Action area 5: Data

The DfE wants to be a one-stop-shop for monitoring and evaluating how all the action areas are being implemented and intends to flag up case studies of good practice in the same way Ofsted does. It also wants to encourage trials and pilots of innovative practice. This means that ambitious school leaders have the potential to attract funding and recognition for being pioneers in this field.


Simple arithmetic

Saving the planet one school at a time might seem an extravagant claim. But imagine if every school really was a sustainable school in the widest sense. The difference this would make to education and wider society would be inestimable – although let’s try. My calculation goes as follows:

  • One sustainable school headteacher with a school roll of say 500 with 50 staff, would not only have the potential to influence those 550 individuals, but also their families, extended families and friends which could take the figure up to several thousand.
  • If the school had a high profile in this field, with the way social media works, this could reach many more, perhaps tens of thousands. If 24,300 schools in England did the same, we are talking about a reach of millions across the country and beyond.

But who are the planet-savers needed to lead sustainable schools? I characterise “leaders for sustainability” as guardians of the long-term future who can inspire others to be the same by providing opportunities for co-creating new solutions.

They model types of thinking and behaviour which encourage everyone in the school to unleash their minds to avoid blind acceptance of what is “normal” (much of the present normal being planet-wrecking) and for avoiding “greenwash”.

These leaders are upbeat and solution-focused. They have a strong moral compass, being values-led and displaying high levels of empathy and courage. Above all they are “authentic”, rather than mass-produced cardboard cut-outs. These leaders think out of the box, while recognising that the box in the form of the present education sector, can’t be ignored. They break away from unnecessary conformity and subtly “game the system” for the benefit of all. It’s all about wanting everyone to thrive rather than just survive.

I emphasise that education leaders don’t need to be trapped by the accountability imposed by a national education service and that rather than being a peripheral issue, having a sustainability ethos is really the only “sensible” option on many levels. A sustainability mind-set can throw off the chains of compliance laid down by others for reasons of power and/or outdated processes and traditions.


Rhetoric to reality?

It would be easy to be cynical about the DfE draft strategy and 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 that sustainability is no longer a Cinderella area for schools.

As I argue in my forthcoming book Leadership for Sustainability, it 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. 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.

  • Dr David Dixon was a full-time primary teacher for 15 years before becoming a headteacher for the following two decades. In that time, he promoted the twin causes of environmental education and sustainability, which formed the central ethos of his schools. David is now a freelance education consultant, specialising in curriculum and leadership and helping individual schools to link sustainability with school improvement more generally. His book Leadership for Sustainability (Independent Thinking Press) will be published in February 2022: https://bit.ly/3CrbYck

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