The schools trying to go green, and what’s stopping them

We lay bare the challenges leaders encounter as they go green, following warnings DfE could miss carbon goals

We lay bare the challenges leaders encounter as they go green, following warnings DfE could miss carbon goals

24 Oct 2023, 5:00

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Two years ago the government promised to make the education sector a world leader in environmental sustainability.

But the National Audit Office (NAO) says the policies won’t “make a contribution towards achieving government’s overall goal” of slashing emissions by three-quarters by 2037, before net zero in 2050.

In a damning report published in June, the spending watchdog called for changes to be “rolled out at a much larger scale, and relatively soon”.

So what’s going on? Schools Week investigates…

Are schools cutting emissions?

Government guidance states large MATs that consume more than 40,000 kilowatt-hours of energy in a year must include their carbon emission readings in annual accounts.

The bosses of smaller organisations don’t have to report their energy use. Councils must, but it’s not possible to extract the energy use for schools only.

Nick Hurn

Schools Week analysis of the 30 biggest trusts shows per-pupil carbon emissions fell by 2.9 per cent between 2019-20 and 2021-22.

Covid is likely skewing the findings, with school closures temporarily compressing figures. And in 2020-21, the keeping of windows open to thwart the virus’ spread probably halted progress.

Nick Hurn, the chief executive of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, which has cut per-pupil emissions by 42 per cent since 2019, said it was “difficult” to have environmentally friendly estates when buildings were old and dilapidated.

The NAO report said 24,000 primary and secondary buildings – 38 per cent of the school estate – were beyond their “initial design life”. The government estimates repairing all of England’s school buildings would cost £11.4 billion.

Speaking to Schools Week, Keith Davis, the director responsible for the NAO report, said that if “water’s coming through the roof, leaders are going to have to address that first”. 

The NAO study also found a £2 billion yearly shortfall in capital funding for schools, meaning emergency repairs take precedence over routine maintenance.

Jonathan Timmis, the chief operations officer of Astrea Academy Trust, said: “If you want to get to net zero, you’ll have to knock the buildings down.”

MPs sitting on the environment audit committee examined the DfE’s eco targets on Wednesday. Conservative Philip Dunne, who chaired the hearing, is urging ministers to use the RAAC emergency as an opportunity to address green concerns.  

Decarbonisation scheme cash drops 

The £2.3 billion public sector decarbonisation scheme (PSDS) was launched by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) in 2020 to offer grants to the likes of schools and hospitals for efficiency upgrades.  

Jonathan Timmis

Schools Week analysis suggests £270 million (21.19 per cent) of the £1.27 billion handed out across the last two phases of the project went to bids featuring schools. This represents a drop of 20 percentage points since the first funding wave three years ago. 

It’s also just below the 24 per cent of public sector emissions that state primaries and secondaries produce.

The proportion of cash going to schools is likely to be lower, too, as council applications do not state how much money is earmarked for schools, as opposed to wider services.

The government last year introduced “sector caps” to ensure funding “broadly matches” emission numbers. Schools, alongside colleges and universities, now get between 30 and 35 per cent of the pot.

Results from a Freedom of Information request show Harris Federation was the second-largest recipient of PSDS grants from the education sector. It’s been allocated £17.2 million since 2020, which is £2.7 million less than the sum Cranfield University in Bedfordshire has received.  

Big trusts ‘better off’  

At Harris, the money has gone towards new heating systems in seven academies, solar panels and 10,000 new LED fittings, among other things. A spokesperson said so far the trust had “achieved a 95 per cent aggregated carbon saving across the 11 schools benefiting from this funding”. 

The trust, one of the country’s largest with 52 schools, “put together credible [funding] bids quickly” as it had appointed a company to support it with energy-efficiency work two years before PSDS began. 

Paul Edmond

But Paul Edmond, the chair of the UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN), said it was “a challenge” for smaller organisations to put bids together. 

Our analysis shows trusts that lodged successful PSDS applications had, on average, 22 schools. The average-sized MAT in 2022 had seven academies, according to Education Datalab.

England’s biggest trust, United Learning, received the go-ahead for five separate bids totalling £5.7 million.  

Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, Dr Jonathan Dewsbury, the DfE’s director of capital operations and net zero, said PSDS was “consistently oversubscribed”. Officials recognised it was a “challenge for particularly small schools or SATs to access it”, but were working with DESNZ to change the next phase of funding to fix this.

Baroness Barran, the academies minister, also acknowledged the “first-past-the-post system [for applications] isn’t working very well for schools”.

How schools are taking the initiative to go green

Despite a lack of funding, more schools are prioritising going green.

Nearly 66 per cent of respondents to a National Governance Association survey this year said leaders had taken “practical action in their school or trust on environmental sustainability”.

Larger trusts are using their own cash to fund changes.

E-ACT will fork out £8 million – drawn from reserves and capital grants – to install solar panels in each of its 28 academies. Chris Wiseman, its deputy chief executive, said the scheme was “central to reducing our reliance on mains services where possible”.

Astrea spent £1.1 million – half of which came from its reserves – on solar panels and LED lights.

Jessica Marshall of Oasis

Delta Academies Trust, which runs 53 schools, launched an “environmental strategy group” 18 months ago.                                      

Paul Tarn, its chief executive, said classroom projectors had been replaced with LED screens and that the chain has committed to installing solar panels whenever a roof was refurbished.  

Jessica Marshall was appointed by Oasis Community Learning, which has 53 schools, to the newly-created role of national environmental and sustainability manager in January. She “can’t imagine” who would be doing the “procurement and administrative documents that are required” for funding applications at an “organisation that doesn’t have a role like mine”. 

Energy costs make green measures affordable

Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser, said while largest trusts would be able to afford facilities teams with “capability and knowledge” of green issues, this “wouldn’t make [financial] sense for an average MAT”, which would instead have to “contract out”.  

But the surge in energy costs have pushed many to act.

Mark Greatrex, the boss of the 10-school chain Bellevue Place, said after energy bills leapt from £16,000 to £60,000 in two years at one of his schools, he would review whether it was “sustainable to have someone to do this because the savings could pay for their role. It’s something that…wasn’t as financially attractive before.”    

Marino Charalambous

To reduce costs, some eco-minded chains, such as Oasis, have signed up to long-term contracts with companies that fit solar panels for no initial cost. In return, the schools pay the firms a lower-than-market rate fee for each unit of electricity generated by the panels.  

Under the deal, North Star Community Trust pays 16p per unit. From national grid suppliers, a unit of electricity is worth about 34p. Marino Charalambous, its chief executive, said he chose this option as he could not afford to buy the panels outright. 

“It’s a no-brainer – as long as you go with the right companies.” 

Essex County Council officials aim to retrofit their schools “with energy-efficiency measures by 2030”. Funding for capital works – such as replacing old gas boilers with air-source heat pumps – is coming from the authority’s maintenance budget.  

In Kent, council chiefs have installed about 3,000 solar panels across the county’s schools in the past 13 years. The authority has also purchased a solar farm.

Net zero ‘accelerator’ plan for schools

The DfE launched its own sustainability and climate change unit (SCCU) in April 2021. But the delivery plan is already rated “amber-red”. 

Baroness Barran
Baroness Barran

Barran revealed on Wednesday that seven of the 143 commitments that its agencies must commit to are “off track”, although she called the rating “a bit harsh”.

Among them are promises to ensure all new school buildings are net zero by the end of this year and to develop standards for retrofit and repair by 2025. 

Ministers intend on rebuilding 500 primaries and secondaries (about 2 per cent of the school estate) by 2030, costing £1 billion a year. Barran also said the government has a target of retrofitting 650 schools to get them “net zero but without a rebuild”.

Meanwhile, the government-owned LocatED is working on a “net zero accelerator”. Documents say the scheme will “finance and deliver practical improvements to the education estate”. 

This will help councils and trusts assess the condition of their schools and advise “what building works they need to do, and the order in which to do them”. 

It will “also seek to aggregate participating schools to harness their collective buying power” to create “greater value-for-money”.

‘Who’s going to tell me off for not going green?’ 

But the NAO found cash for the DfE’s resilient schools programme – which is testing retrofitting options for primaries and secondaries – had been quietly cut from £90.5 million to just £4.6 million in August 2022.  

However Edmond, of UKSSN, said there’s “no real accountability to make schools green. Who’s going to tell me off if I don’t do it?” 

Ministers estimate that at the current rate of progress, 80 per cent of the existing [education] estate won’t be retrofitted by 2050, while the NAO has branded current sustainability schemes “fairly small-scale”.  

Davis said the DfE now must “set an emissions target and get its decarbonisation plan in place. There’s been no substantive progress on this.” 

A DfE spokesperson said the department is piloting approaches to decarbonisation which will “enable us to set targets by 2025 and allow us to take action efficiently and with least disruption”. Specifications for new buildings are also already “better than national standards”.

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  1. It’s not only energy that needs to be reduced. Schools are well placed to show how a Circular Economy works and to also embed Sustainability into the curriculum. It’s not all about the Green Stuff, but also links to well-being, systems thinking and pupil agency. Sustainable schools also reduce overall consumption due to the hidden embodied carbon in ‘stuff’. The science and aesthetics of nature are also important elements. I document all this and more in my book Leadership for Sustainability: saving the planet one school at a time.