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

Fiona Carnie

COP26: 7 things schools can do

Fiona Carnie describes how schools can respond to the climate change challenge and play their part in creating a sustainable future for children and young people.

This is the year of COP26. The climate crisis talks, taking place in Glasgow in November, will determine the future of the planet. Nothing less. All eyes will be on the UK for a positive lead.

Will we be successful in turning the tide on carbon emissions to create a sustainable future? Or will we fail in this, arguably the biggest challenge in our lifetime?

It is hardly surprising that children and young people across the globe are embracing the environmental agenda; they will be the biggest losers if we fail. Greta Thunberg has inspired a generation. Adults must get on board.

How can schools respond to this urgent challenge? Environmental education as currently organised in the UK is clearly not working. Rangers on Snowdon say that the biggest culprits in leaving litter and despoiling the natural environment are young people.

Schools need to address the disconnect between what happens in the classroom and beyond. Learning about the environment must translate into action. We must all play our part.

What can schools do?

In an earlier blog I wrote about the need for schools to:

  1. revisit their vision and values to put the wellbeing of people and planet at the heart of school life
  2. review relevant school policies to prioritise a zero-carbon future
  3. rewrite the curriculum to foreground the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to create a sustainable future.

These are no small tasks – but what might they look like in practice?

1. Curriculum 

The climate crisis now needs to take centre stage in the curriculum. Young people need to be prepared for a very different – zero carbon – future. The workplace and the kinds of jobs available are going to change. This will require new knowledge and different skills. Education for sustainability must therefore be a cross-curricular priority. 

  • At Garlinge Primary School in Margate, environmental education is not taught in isolation, but is linked to all areas of the curriculum, including science, art, English and PSHCE. 
  • A Global Goals Curriculum is being developed in Germany. An approach which foregrounds the United Nations 17 goals for sustainable development is needed in the UK. 
  • Learning through Landscapes supports schools to take learning outdoors to help children build a connection with the natural world. 

2. Food 

Meat consumption must be reduced and can even be eliminated at lunch times. Animals emit methane and other greenhouse gases and so a reduction in meat-eating helps reduce global warming. 

Schools can support farmers and businesses by buying local, organic food where possible. The Soil Association’s Food for Life programme supports schools to offer tasty, healthy and sustainable menus.  

Many schools across the country have signed up to meat-free Mondays and are including plant-based options on other days. St Christopher’s School in Hertfordshire provides vegetarian lunches for all daily. It saves money and improves health as well as being better for the environment.

3. Transport

An emphasis on travel by bike and on foot will reduce carbon emissions. It will also improve air quality in the neighbourhood. 

It is time too for schools to stop offering trips that involve flying. Tourism accounts for almost 10% of global carbon emissions and so travel by train is a better option.

4. Resources

A move to using renewable, sustainable resources will reduce waste. Schools can make an impact by buying environmentally friendly, fair-trade products where possible. Single use plastics can be phased out and using biodegradable cleaning materials causes less harm to the environment. 

St Martin’s Primary School in Devon has a recycling policy which commits students and staff to ‘Reduce the amount of materials we use and waste we produce, re–use materials wherever possible, restore what is deemed to have been destroyed and respect our neighbours and our planet.’ 

5. Energy

Switching off lights and appliances, turning down the heating will save energy. We all need to wear extra clothes in winter too - and we must insulate and ventilate our buildings. Energy can be purchased from renewable suppliers. Where possible solar panels or wind turbines can be installed. 

The Centre for Sustainable Energy provides resources to schools on reducing energy consumption. Their Bright Green Future programme supports young people to become the environmental decision makers of the future.

6. Clothing

School uniforms need to be looked at too. It is time to stop importing cheap uniforms from developing countries. The particles that come off man-made fibres in the washing machine are finding their way into the ocean. 

Suppliers must be encouraged instead to use natural and sustainable fibres. School uniforms can often be recycled, saving money for parents. At Verulam School in St Albans, parents run a second-hand uniform shop. 

7. School grounds

Outside space can be used to grow vegetables and fruit. Learning how to garden is an invaluable skill for all children. Planting trees and encouraging wildlife helps to improve biodiversity. 

According to the Soil Association gardening in school brings benefits to everyone: improved health and wellbeing, better levels of attention in class, higher achievement and stronger links with the local community. Some schools have even created mini farms. 

The children and staff at West Primary School in Paisley in Scotland have won awards for their gardening activities. The Warriner School in Oxfordshire has a mixed 120-acre farm with a range of livestock which are reared on organic grassland.

Next steps

Every school needs a climate crisis committee consisting of students, staff, senior leaders, parents and members of the local community. Working together, such a group can agree what action needs to be taken and develop a whole school strategy and plan of action. The Eco Schools  organisation can assist with this.

Collaboration is key. A Climate Change Education Research Network has been set up by the University of Bristol and involves researchers and schools from across the south west working together to explore best practice. The Soil Association, Sustrans, Avon Wildlife Trust and others are helping students take appropriate action in their school communities.

Now is the time to do things differently. The crisis caused by the pandemic provides an opportunity to build back better. If Britain is to meet its climate commitments everyone must play their part. We must be prepared for COP26. Let’s show that schools are part of the solution.

For more ideas, see Fiona's previous blog post, How can schools respond to the climate crisis?

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