The UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN) was established in spring 2021 as an umbrella to bring together networks of students to connect and collaborate on issues they care about, fully supported by school staff
The UKSSN aims to make schools, communities, regions and countries more aware of the climate and nature crises, and ultimately more sustainable, through collaboration, representation and education. There are now regional networks operating in Avon, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, London, Mersey Region, Midlands, Oxford, Surrey and Somerset, with further networks in the pipeline in Devon, the East, Greater Manchester, Northumberland and Yorkshire & Humber. A similar network has also set up in Ireland.
The networks provide students, teaching and operations staff (including Governors) with a way to connect with peers, share ideas and resources, collaborate on local, national and international initiatives, and develop personal, social and workplace skills. The regional networks are run at grassroots level – often centred around a hub school – and the whole network is now hosted and supported by Global Action Plan to enable wider reach.
The UKSSN was invited to take part in a review of the Department for Education (DfE)’s draft Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy after UKSSN students attending COP26 in Glasgow spoke on a panel in the ministerial blue zone where the DfE’s plans were first unveiled. Since then students, teaching and operations staff from across the networks have taken part in various working groups and panels to give feedback on the Strategy, and some joined the launch event at the Natural History Museum on 21 April 2022.
In November 2021 the UKSSN started bringing together school business leaders, triggered by a need to coordinate input to the sections of the draft strategy dealing with operations, supply chains and estates. The UKSSN Operations Group now meets monthly online and collaborates via Microsoft Teams to join up and compare notes on sustainability. Please email [email protected] if you, colleagues or students are interested in joining the student, teacher or operations groups of UKSSN.
View from the balance sheet
The Department for Education (DfE)’s vision, for the UK to be the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030, is an aspiration to be applauded. The breadth of the new Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy is welcome, addressing education and skills, biodiversity, emissions, net zero and resilience – articulated across 5 strategic ‘Action Areas’ from pre-schools to universities. However, whilst there is much to support, the Strategy has significant gaps that need to be addressed if our sector is to deliver meaningful, positive impact.
Lack of Ambition and Pace
The Strategy states that by 2025 all education settings will have a climate action plan based on setting-level data. Why not insist on a climate action plan by 2023 with an expectation plans will strengthen in future years as our knowledge of what works grows?
To reduce emissions and respond to climate change the DfE’s intention is to adapt existing buildings and design new ones. The Strategy states that “young people can learn in buildings designed for net zero” and “seeing sustainability brought to life in the buildings around them will allow children and young people to gain experiences which will enhance and contextualise their learning”. The intention should be supported, but achieving this for 32,163 schools in 28 years seems unlikely given the absence of ambition and urgency. The trials the DfE are proposing are narrow in nature and unaspiring: trial the delivery of smart meters an online portal for energy usage; 10 pilots to test Energy Pods; and fund 50 new schools every year over the next decade i.e. 500 schools by 2031. This amounts to a very small dent in the school estate designed with climate change in mind.
Lack of Resource
The Strategy states that “by 2023 all bids for capital funding for further education and higher education will need to consider environmental impact, carbon reduction and adaptation measures, and align with the government’s targets and objectives”. The Strategy completely fails to address the need for significant additional capital funding to support a successful transition to net zero. By way of illustration, a Trust with 3 secondaries and 5 primary schools recently commissioned a heat decarbonisation plan to help them transition to net zero. The Trust in question was quoted £2.7 million to decarbonise their heating system and another £1.5 million to generate energy and become more energy efficient. In the absence of new funding the most likely outcome is that poorly-resourced education settings, often those most in need of support, will fall further behind their wealthier counterparts. Settings with limited reserves and already stretched resources will simply not have the funding or capacity to deliver against the Strategy. It also does not address how PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schools are going to work towards becoming net zero. A new inequality will inevitably emerge further fragmenting our sector and at a time when we are supposed to be levelling up.
Lack of Accountability
The Strategy lacks courage of conviction by not holding settings to account for the quality of their climate plan or delivery of real impact. We must not forget that the concept of targeting ‘net zero’ is arguably the least-worst option for saving the planet; it tolerates the continued use of fossil fuels, is complex to measure and incredibly difficult to prove. The DfE Strategy makes no reference to the risk of ‘greenwashing’ by individuals, education settings or suppliers to the sector. A lack of accountability – whether to Governors, Trustees, the local community or to local or central government – and independent auditing, means settings can effectively choose to do as much or as little as they want with little risk to their reputation. The immediate, tangible teaching and pastoral challenges of today will inevitably and understandably be prioritised by some at the expense of less tangible and much harder to deliver challenges of tomorrow.
It is positive that the DfE recognises that stakeholders from across education and children’s services need to work together, that sector leadership is needed, and that the DfE will help facilitate those partnerships to maximise the use of resources, expertise and ideas to achieve effective outcomes. The UK Schools Sustainability Network strongly supports this.
Greater clarity and investment are needed in the role of Sustainability Lead. Having only one person per school trained in the role is unlikely to drive significant, measurable, rapid change. We would suggest a minimum of three Sustainability Leads, one to support children and education, a second to direct operations, and a third Sustainability Governor or Trustee for effective oversight. The depth and quality of carbon literacy training needs to be established to ensure effective training commences as early as possible. More clarity is also required as to how young people can participate and help drive the implementation of climate adaption measures. Educational leaders cannot wait for the next generation to implement the measures, we need to act now.
On balance, as the first published Sustainability and Climate Strategy for our sector, this is a good start. However, we would urge the DfE to continue to engage with climate experts and education system leaders to further develop the Strategy and introduce targets and accountability measures commensurate with the real-world risks of not achieving a positive outcome.
- Helen Burge, ISBL Fellow and Deputy Chief Operating Officer, The Priory Learning Trust, Somerset
- Paul Edmond, ISBL Fellow and Chief Finance Officer, Heart Academies Trust, Bedfordshire