Sustainability strategy: High aspirations alone won’t fly

Governors stand ready to put sustainability at the heart of our schools, writes Emma Knights, but they’ll need more support than this strategy provides

Governors stand ready to put sustainability at the heart of our schools, writes Emma Knights, but they’ll need more support than this strategy provides

Emma Knights.

30 Apr 2022, 5:00

Last week, under the majestic blue whale skeleton that adorns the ceiling of the Natural History Museum, the DfE launched its environmental sustainability and climate change policy. It was good to see the future of the planet – and education’s role in saving it – get such a good airing. But despite support from some well-known figures, I couldn’t help feeling the content is all a bit minimal.

Young people have been calling for change for years, and pupil voice has already spurred many governing boards and school leaders to act. This – alongside the definite evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is why the National Governance Association (NGA) developed its Greener Governance campaign.

So when the DfE published its draft strategy in November in response to a COP26 conference, NGA was among the many that welcomed it. It has taken almost six months of talking to the education sector and green organisations to get from that draft to last week’s final strategy.

Nadhim Zahawi’s ambition to be world leading is great to hear, but the vision needs to be realised, and at a pace that averts IPCC predictions – a challenge he accepts as formidable. So I’m glad we agree that it’s imperative schools play their part in tackling climate change. However, it’s equally obvious that they need the wherewithal to achieve what is being asked of them.

Our work shows that the two big barriers to moving the sustainability agenda on from a vanguard of passionate advocates to the mainstream business of education are leadership capacity and funding.

Leadership capacity

Every school will need a sustainability lead, but wishing for one won’t make it happen. And in practice, trusts and schools need two leads: one for education and another for business. These are very different sets of expertise.

Governing boards know this, but these responsibilities can’t just be heaped on to leaders who are already stretched to breaking point. In truth, many boards will struggle to find the finances for the additional hours required, and it is highly unlikely that we will lead the world if it is going to take three years just to nominate sustainability leads and put climate action plans in place.

The strategy is absolutely clear that sector leadership and institution-level accountability for sustainability will be key for success. However, there is no specific mention of the role of trusts. This is perplexing, not just in light of the recent schools white paper, but especially because this is an area where they can really add value by employing central expertise and procuring support.


Most of the trusts that have led this work to date have been successful in obtaining separate funding to support their work, particularly with regards to capital investment to bring buildings to net zero. But this requires time-consuming bids for pots which would not support the whole school estate. That’s why the DfE can’t just refer schools to the business department but needs to come up with its own dedicated pot for school and nursery estates, and I have urged them to do so.

NGA’s guidance builds on the four Cs developed by the National Association of Environmental Education: culture, curriculum, campus and community. The DfE’s strategy covers those aspects too, and it would be churlish not to be encouraged by its aspirations, including what pupils will experience and learn about climate change and the opportunities for green careers, and how schools will be trained, supported and incentivised to model climate leadership.

But a focus on the “inspirational enthusiasm of youth” mustn’t be a foil for adults taking action. Of course, pupils should be involved in a meaningful way. But one of the biggest and most immediate wins for reducing greenhouse gases will come by transforming our schools’ and buildings’ energy use. We can’t expect pupils to know how to achieve that. Nor can we afford to wait for them to grow into the leaders of tomorrow.

Governing boards are ready to embrace the challenge, to listen to young people and to support today’s leaders to deliver.

But this is not going to work on fresh air alone.

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