Research: How can teaching be made greener?

Teaching lags behind other professions when it comes to decarbonising, and the key may be in the incentives schools offer, writes Iain Ford

Teaching lags behind other professions when it comes to decarbonising, and the key may be in the incentives schools offer, writes Iain Ford

6 Dec 2021, 5:00

Part of the business community’s response to climate change has been to seize the changes forced on them by the pandemic and to offset their carbon emissions by offering flexible working permanently. But while commuting may be a thing of the past for some, teachers are not so lucky. Not only does teaching not lend itself easily to flexible working, but school days also mean that teachers are often commuting during rush hour.

To build a picture of how teachers are commuting into school and why, Teacher Tapp polled its panel of over 6,000 teachers about all things green. What we learned is that primary teachers have slightly shorter commutes – an average round trip of 44 minutes and 16 miles each day, compared to 52 minutes and just under 20 miles for secondary teachers. Compared to previous surveys about national commuting habits, primary teachers’ commutes are slightly shorter than the national average, while their secondary colleagues’ are about equal with it.

We also learned that a whopping 83 per cent of teachers commute by car (five per cent with an electric or hybrid, and 78 per cent with a petrol or diesel). That’s way above the national average of around 60 per cent. And while these numbers may be inflated due to people’s reluctance to use public transport during a pandemic, there is more going on than that.

Schools have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to commuting, compared to the rest of the population. While blue- and white-collar workers often commute into city centres and business parks, schools can be found all over the country, often in places not always well served by public transport. This is reflected in the responses to the polling: only six per cent of teachers get to school by public transport. Even in London, with one of the best public transport systems in the world, only a quarter of teachers use it, and half still commute by car.

Walking, cycling and public transport are often off the table

But while the location of their schools is certainly a factor, another is how much teachers have to carry. Teaching resources and bags of marking are just some of the things they have to bring to work. One-third of teachers say that they are carrying a heavy rucksack, with a quarter of them carrying more than one bag. Walking long distances, cycling and even public transport are often off the table regardless of transport links and distance.

Many places offer people incentives to adopt a more eco-friendly choice of commuting, and schools are no exception. By far the most popular option – 30 per cent of schools do this – is to offer cycle-to-work schemes. London and the south-west are the only regions where this number surpasses 40 per cent. And while teachers who work in schools with such a scheme do cycle to school more often, we don’t know if this is causal or not. In other words, they may be subsidising those who already did.

Aside from the weight of their bags, there are many other reasons teachers don’t cycle. Many see the lack of safe infrastructure as a barrier, for example. Safety more broadly may in part explain why eight per cent of men but only two per cent of women cycle to school each day.

So what about incentivising other means of transport? We found that just seven per cent of schools in London (and next to no schools elsewhere) offer season ticket loans for public transport. Meanwhile, just one per cent of schools have a green car scheme and three per cent (mostly secondaries) have electric car charging points.

On balance then, and for a variety of good reasons, it looks like four wheels are here to stay. However, the political response to climate change is running ahead of schools’ policies, and with a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales looming large, more needs to be done to allow teachers to make the switch to electric.

Otherwise, where are teachers going to put all their marking?

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