I recently came across a bar chart. Contained in its handful of yellow and orange bars was information that made my former primary school leader blood boil. I thought that leaving the profession for the charity sector last July meant performance and league tables could no longer plague me. But here it was, comparison data making my teeth grind.
I glimpsed it fleetingly on a presentation from my brilliant local Net Zero Hub. It showed that in one UK region alone, nearly 3,000 schools were in the bottom four most inefficient energy performance bands – D, E, F and G.
We know our public buildings are energy inefficient, so you might ask what I found so blood-boilingly, teeth-grindingly infuriating about this? The answer is simple: Schools are bottom of the class in terms of energy-efficient buildings. Awful. Worst of the worst. And these are the buildings we expect our young people to learn in.
Lack of government investment in school buildings is shocking and causing huge financial strain on energy bills, not to mention the huge weight of guilt on leaders’ shoulders that they are letting down their pupils in the fight against climate change.
It’s not that education is that much worse than other sectors; it’s that there are so many schools, reaching so deeply into their communities. These should be role models, shining a light on exemplary zero-carbon behaviours. They should be sustainability priorities. Why aren’t they?
I spent 13 years in schools (all at the same one, actually), going from teaching assistant to assistant headteacher and onwards to trust-wide sustainability project coordinator. That final role reignited a passion I had when I started my teaching career. Now, along with my team of five other regional experts (soon to expand to 30 nationwide) we are supporting schools with securing green funding, creating eco-action plans, providing sustainability top tips and supporting ambitious retrofit projects. It is inspiring and rewarding, but those statistical bars in their warm colours lay bare the cold hard truth of what lies ahead of us.
I have felt that very real frustration of knowing that no matter what sustainability behaviour changes teachers secure, they are fundamentally hampered by the buildings in which they teach.
In schools across the land, teachers, TAs, site managers and leaders are adding extra workload to their already massive working weeks to run switch-off campaigns to reduce energy bills, take school recycling home because there’s no council collection, wash school jumpers for swap shops to cut waste and save families money and escort walking buses to cut down on pollution. PTAs are fundraising for solar installations, and already cash-strapped families are digging deep to support that cause on top of the tax they are already paying government to do this job.
They do this because they care. They care that pupils are taught in appropriate environments and become passionate about addressing climate change. They care about the loss of habitat loss and biodiversity that enriched their childhoods. And they care that budgets that could be spent on pupil mental health, staff wellbeing and special educational needs resources is spent instead on fossil fuels pouring into and straight back out of leaky buildings.
It is infuriating, but we have no option but to keep going. The good news is that schools don’t have to go it alone. Express your interest in a climate action adviser to support your school with free, expert advice and you can start enjoying the benefits immediately. That walking bus = 10 minutes walking in the fresh air for a couple of staff members before school. That uniform swap shop = engaged families and revived community spirit. That switch-off campaign = energy bill reductions. And that PTA solar fundraiser = investment in a livable future for our young people.
Of course that’s not enough. We need government action too. That’s why our campaign calls for seven achievable, affordable steps in line with the country’s zero-carbon ambitions. You can join that too.
Together, we can make change happen. And just knowing that is enough to cool my blood temperature. I hope it does yours too.