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Two boys planting trees at Radley College

1 May 2024

‘Being green’ is the number one issue of the day. So how are schools accommodating and encouraging such an outlook and is it something parents should pay close attention to when choosing a school? 

You don’t have to be an Extinction Rebel, treehugger or (nod to the 90s) Swampy to include the quest for net zero on your list of must-haves when choosing schools. Their approaches to sustainability will not only increase your child’s awareness of environmental issues, but also prepare them for future jobs and maybe even help contain ever-increasing school fees. 

If former US Vice President and climate campaigner Al Gore is correct in his claim that ‘we are in the early stages of a global sustainability revolution’ – and we accept the UK government’s Climate Change Committee’s assessment that ‘you don’t reach net zero simply by wishing it’ – then educational institutions should rightly be at the forefront of the movement. 

What are schools doing?

Ever received the full Greta treatment from your child, only to find yourself turning off every light behind them? Even if the results are a little inconsistent, children are environmental enthusiasts and sustainability is now on the radar of practically all schools. We see a plethora of initiatives on our visits – often pupil led – ranging from single-use plastic bans, Thrift Thursdays and repair shops to no-mow lawns, natural dye gardens for use in textiles and no-dig allotments selling wonky veg. We’ve seen a pop-up climate café used to address anxiety around global warming while making low carbon snacks, costumes and sets for productions using solely recycled materials and even lycra clad headteachers cycling to work. 

Outdoor learning also plays a part, and we are no strangers to throwing on our wellies and heading out to forest schools to bear witness to the value they bring to learning about the environment. Then there are living walls and green roofs – not just for aesthetics but utilised to reduce pollution and remove CO2 from the air. Radley College, Eaton House Belgravia and Sevenoaks Preparatory School all have fine examples.  

Then onto bigger ticket items. ‘We have a lot of roofs, so our capacity is significant,’ says Wycliffe College – cue installation of solar panels expected to generate 75,000 kWh per annum. Radley College plans to build a 20-acre solar farm, re-wild farmland and plant 50-acres of trees to reach the target of carbon-neutral by 2030. Felsted School has recently appointed its first head of sustainability – a role icreasingly featuring in ‘exciting job opportunity’ ads. 

James Allen's Girls' School (JAGS) has a punchy strategy including a 200-litre composter which currently transforms 20 per cent of the school’s waste (well on the way to hitting their 30 per cent target by 2030). An energy saving group at King Henry VIII, Coventry, audits energy consumption. 

The cash-strapped state sector has been getting in on the act too. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Salford last year installed solar panels on all of its 160 schools and has already saved 150 tonnes of carbon and £60,000 of electricity. Just one of many such examples. 

Preparing for a green future

With the future job market in mind, parents would do well to consider schools’ environmental credentials. ‘Green careers’ have grown exponentially with the ‘Build Back Greener’ post-pandemic mantra. The green economy is worth at least £70 billion, with potential for far more. But how do schools help their students stand out in an ever-more competitive field? It’s perhaps no surprise that 55 UK universities now offer over 172 courses in sustainability and related topics. It follows, then, that schools offering relevant qualifications or accreditations could be the go-to. The incoming natural history GCSE has the go-ahead from September 2025, while A levels and IB courses in environmental science are already available. Climate Leaders Awards (run in parallel to DofE) are also on offer.  

Some schools are going further still. Rochester Independent College has introduced a 100 per cent sustainability scholarship designed to attract applicants who have ‘a passion for nature…and who have taken action to help environmental sustainability’. And in a recent visit to Bromley High Junior School, a quarter of the pupil council told us they dreamed not of being doctors, lawyers or astronauts or X-factor winners, but of working in sustainability.  

Recently installed solar panels at Wycliffe College

Does sustainability equal savings?

These days, parents pondering private school would be prudent to consider how environmental efficiency might affect fee inflation. ‘Whatever happens, school fees will continue to rise – as sure as death and taxes,’ we reported in our January article The future of private school fees. Add to this a looming election featuring Labour’s proposed tax changes and you can see why parents need greater reassurance than ever that schools are managing their money effectively. Initiatives we’ve witnessed are undeniably productive and hopefully preparing students for a meaningful life beyond, but to keep the polar bear from the door, there’s still a way to go.

The Independent Schools Council’s white paper on sustainability in schools reported that 44 per cent have a sustainability strategy in place, yet 70 per cent are not measuring carbon emissions (critical in the journey to achieving net zero and ultimately in tightening the purse strings). Whether savings from new sustainable energy sources and cutting carbon emissions will be passed onto the parent, injected into bursaries and scholarships or re-invested into larger projects remains to be seen. But it’s a savvy school that recognises a ‘robust sustainability and net zero strategy can bolster the resilience, relevance and longevity of educational institutions’. Some are ahead of the game – University College School is already ‘carbon neutral’, with a triple gold recognition from the UN Climate Neutral Now initiative.

So what should parents do?

With each at a different stage on its journey to net zero, viewing prospective schools through a sustainability lens provides parents with an interesting insight into their broader culture and ethos. Those treating it as more than window dressing will equip children with vital understanding of the challenges facing the world and give them a flavour of some of the solutions. 

Of course, the battle to save planet Earth cannot be won at a small primary school, let alone at a grand English public school, but they should play their part and parents should attach weight to what they do. The pre-prep of St Faith’s, Cambridge, has a coveted ‘tortoise badge’, the holder of which has the privilege of being the last to leave the classroom, ensuring all lights are switched off. It’s sustainability on a small practical level, but it leaves an impression on young minds which is a very good start. 

Image credit (boys planting trees): Radley College; Image credit (solar panels): Wycliffe College



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