The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Climate change and sustainability — what role for schools?

Is your school wasting energy unnecessarily? Elizabeth Holmes suggests actions to take to better manage energy consumption.

In a recent tweet, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, stated that the last eight years are on track to be the warmest. The tweet continued, 'Sea levels are rising at twice the speed of the 1990s. We must answer the planet's distress signal with ambitious, credible climate action.'

Schools are vital in the work to address the climate emergency. In April 2022, the Dfe published its policy paper, Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children's services systems, which sets out policies that are focussed on 'the environmental aspect of sustainability… with consideration for how those policies will interact with the social and economic aspects of sustainability.'

We must remember that nearly half of English schools are at flood risk.

Schools matter

For education, this brings together short, medium, and longer-term actions. These include:

  • the introduction of a natural history GCSE
  • an annual climate literacy survey
  • the inclusion of climate change and sustainability in science teachers' CPD
  • the development of the National Education Nature Park
  • the result of a primary science model curriculum
  • an emphasis on learning in the natural environment
  • retrofitted educational buildings
  • schools have a climate action plan in place by 2025, along with a staff member as sustainability lead.

Schools are crucially important in this fight against climate change, not because they are a problem sector, they are not, but because they are so good at leading change across society. When schools are open, one in six people are on school sites, so the reach of sustainability messages coming from schools is huge.

Alex Green, who runs the 'Let's Go Zero' campaign for schools, colleges, and nurseries at Ashden, the charity for climate solutions in action, has extensive experience helping schools develop their strategies for reaching carbon zero by 2030.

She explained, 'The impetus to act has kicked up a gear recently, particularly with the cost of living crisis and the rising energy price. This has made people much more aware of energy consumption. Schools face enormous energy bills, so cutting usage is the only way to reduce costs.'

Is your school wasting energy?

There is much that can be done to help schools become more engaged in working to address the climate emergency, and an enormous amount that has little or no cost. Green suggests that the first step is to look at energy usage and understand what energy the school uses and how it uses it. 

'Once you have this information, you can take drastic and serious measures to reduce energy use,' she said. 'Many schools are energy inefficient, so we need to remove the waste in the system. Our schools are overheated. They are not designed for our changed climate. 19 degrees for a classroom temperature is fine. It does not need to be higher. Use heat sparingly. It is better to limit the time that the heating is on.' 

'Ruthlessly turn appliances and lights off when not needed. Are mini fridges dotted around the school being used to keep one sandwich cool? We must always ask, 'do we really need this to be switched on?' 

Explain the costs and the decisions we make over energy usage that could directly impact another spending. It is worth paying someone purely to take the lead on energy efficiency, given the savings that can be made.

What do we look at?

According to Green, the cost of living crisis is happening at home and in our schools. This means that increasing the energy literacy of staff and children will also positively impact them at home. 

'There are small changes that we can make, such as improving insulation and replacing old windows, that can conserve the energy we are using,' Green said. 'Then we can look at the energy efficiency of the heat source we use. Is the boiler functioning properly? Are radiators working? And so on.'

'When we have looked at all the energy efficiencies we can make, we can start to look at renewables. But it is important to get usage down as low as possible before looking at renewables. Draughty old buildings must be repaired so that you are only generating the heat you need.'

'We can also look at travel and transport. How do staff and children get to the school? Can that change? Can we introduce bike trains and walking buses? Use public transport? This helps us be more active, which is always positive.'

'Next, we can explore the food served on the site. Talk to providers about sustainability, reduce the meat content of meals, and promote healthy vegetarian options not as a second-best alternative but as a top choice. The charity ProVeg, a food awareness organisation working to transform the global food system by replacing animal-based products with plant-based alternatives, can help with this.' 

Schools are crucially important in this fight against climate change.

Schools are fantastic

Many strategies can support behaviour changes, which filter out into the community from schools. One effective step that schools can take is to look at nature and biodiversity. School sites in England cover land approximately the size of two Birminghams. What each school does about nature and biodiversity makes a real difference. The great thing is that it is so easy for schools to achieve a more nature-friendly state.  

Leaving areas unmown is a good start. Allow nature to do its thing, and plant more trees (some organisations can help schools with this – see details for The Tree Council). Enable children and staff to spend more time in nature and bring nature indoors. 

We know from research how important it is to connect with the natural world, so the more we can do this, the better. Growing food is another excellent way of helping children think about food, energy waste, and food miles. 

Green is keen to acknowledge that this can be quite challenging for some schools, but it is all about prioritising. 'We completely understand that school staff are education experts and not necessarily experts in climate change,' she explained, 'but the DfE's Sustainability Strategy is a move in the right direction. We must remember that nearly half of English schools are at flood risk. By 2050 that rises to two-thirds of schools.' 

'But schools are fantastic. They are taking climate change on. We should help them to do that so that we are not reinventing the wheel in each school. I am blown away by the efforts that schools are making. We need more of that!'


Focus on energy usage in your school by doing the following.

  • Fully embracing the policy paper, sustainability, and climate change.
  • Take drastic and serious measures to reduce energy consumption. 
  • Explain to your school's community why you are taking these measures. Make the link between reduced energy consumption and more resources for the school. 
  • Aim to improve energy literacy for benefits in school and at home. 
  • Check that your energy infrastructure is running efficiently. 
  • Look at how sustainable travel to and from school is. 
  • Reduce the meat on menus in your school. 
  • Improve the conditions for nature and the biodiversity on your schools' grounds. 
  • Spend as much time as possible learning outdoors.


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