Sustainable schools: leading the way to a greener future

The pressure for schools to be environmentally sustainable is growing every year. There are numerous ways for schools to stay ahead of the curve, from eco initiatives to building sustainable school facilities. Julian Hall explores some of them

At the heart of the ethos of independent schools is a sense of duty and responsibility, often termed as ‘social responsibility’ or ‘social mission’. With the challenges of climate change and sustainability, it’s no surprise that this sense of responsibility has turned towards the environment.

The diversity of green ventures

There are countless initiatives across the sector, with a veritable ecosystem of approaches. They go from awareness-raising lessons and pledges/initial statements of intent, such as the Let’s Go Zero campaign to reach net zero carbon by 2030, signed by University College School in north-west London or individual pledges such as Manchester High School for Girls’ eco code, to full-scale sustainable developments.

A number of schools have undertaken to source their energy from renewable fuels. One example is Portsmouth High School which, since October 2020, has taken its gas and electricity from alternative sources: 40.14% off-shore wind, 13.65% on-shore, with 46% coming from biodegradable fuels, biogas, hydro and landfill gas.

The school has been active in other areas, too. Environment prefect Amelia Spencer told an online school assembly: “The school uses SUEZ recycling and recovery services which aims to reuse, recycle or recover the majority of waste, contributing to a circular economy. We have a fleet of 12 minibuses which save hundreds of thousands of kg of CO₂ emissions per year compared with if everyone drove into school.”

Dulwich College has 18 electric vehicle charging points in a dedicated car park for its staff


Measures around greening transport have been taken up by other schools, including Dulwich College, which now has 18 electric vehicle charging points in a dedicated car park for staff. Meanwhile, St Peter’s School, York, has three electric vehicles, two for facilities assistants and one for the catering staff.

St Peter’s has also been involved in a number of other transport initiatives and was awarded Green Flag status in 2021 by Eco Schools, a global organisation dedicated to environmental education in 70 countries. This award recognised work in the areas of reducing waste, recycling, reducing single-use plastic and promoting biodiversity.

There is no shortage of initiatives for schools to take part in. The Royal Hospital School in Suffolk has participated in the Carbon Charter, an organisation that helps SMEs to look at and reduce their energy use. The school’s Gold Charter rating has involved a wide range of work including insulating pipework and lofts, installing secondary glazing and LED lighting, overhauling the school’s water treatment system, using pump inverters to improve the efficiency of machinery, overhauling the laundry by removing the dry-cleaning machine and switching from oil to LPG (liquified petroleum gas), reusing food waste and replacing cleaning chemicals.

As well as structural change and amending key processes, the work the school has done has also been behavioural, with staff training on environmental issues and pupils leading an eco committee to raise awareness and carry out initiatives.

Sketch of the lower school building to be built at Dulwich College


Sustainable with a capital ‘S’

Dulwich College has more skin in the game than just EV ports. The school has already built a new – and sustainable – science block, is planning a new lower school building and has designs on a new heat pump system.

Costing £22m and carried out between 2013–2016, the science block, replacing a previously subsiding building, is self-cooling, using an ‘open loop system’ involving two bore holes 220m underground and nearly 4km of pipework running through the building. At a given temperature, a pump is activated that drives water through the pipes, taking heat from the building and back into the ground, where it cools naturally. It’s an example of a TABS – thermally active building system – credited with being more energy efficient and cost effective than other thermal transfer systems, for example, air conditioning – although air conditioning is still required in high-heat areas, such as where servers are.

A sustainable building has to work in practice as well as on paper


Meanwhile, solar – or photovoltaic – panels on the roof of the lab provide enough power to transfer over 90% of it to the main school building next door.

The next major project for Dulwich College is the refurbishment of its junior and lower school building, with the spec – from building engineers Max Fordham – including “a 225-person hall for the junior school, an arts wing, a two-storey administration building and wellbeing centre for the lower school, plus improved play spaces”.

The original building dates from 1948, and the school’s policy is now that any new builds must be net zero. This means that details from ventilation and air source heat pumps through to LEDs and on to the computers used in the building, and the power points provided for them, have to be scrutinised very closely for optimal energy use.

“You can knock a Portakabin down and build new,” says Simon Yiend, chief operating officer at Dulwich College. “That’s actually easier to do than refurbish an old building and you can still achieve your carbon targets.”

Explaining the scale of the work, Yiend says: “There is the embodied carbon, which is the stuff you put into the building, so the right sort of steel and the right sort of concrete replacement alternatives and so on. The real challenge is how that building delivers what they call operational carbon savings, or zero cost of carbon for its life.”

As well as disruption, cost is a key challenge, of course, with Yiend noting that it is “potentially 10–15% more” to achieve net zero. “At the same time,” he adds, “the governors are saying ‘we believe in this’ and ‘it’s the right thing to do’.”

Dulwich College had also set its sights on installing ground source heat pumps to take the whole school campus off gas. This project, involving making 200–250 boreholes on college grounds and costing an estimated £7m, would have been supported by the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) but it stipulated that work had to be completed within a year.

With Covid-19 restrictions, this just wasn’t feasible. The project is parked for now, but investment options are being explored and, given the context of energy costs, supportive governors and the local authority pushing for net zero projects, it could be another showcase example of sustainability for the school in the near future.

St Peter’s School, York, was awarded Green Flag status by Eco Schools last year


Net gains

Yiend is under no illusions about how difficult achieving net zero will be, given that 75% of emissions lie in Scope 3, ie are dependent on the supply chain.

Moreover, it’s crucial for Yiend that what is achieved is “a verifiable net zero”, in other words not reliant on offsetting schemes that can often “just transfer carbon somewhere else”.

“Right now, offsetting is way down the line,” admits Yiend. “There’s no point in trying to do offsetting, unless you’ve done everything else to minimise the footprint.”

Plans for the planet

For schools wanting to embark on sustainable renovations, there is clearly a lot to consider, from disruption and costs to the fine detail of computers and power points. Moreover, it’s often hard to keep the design stage simple because of building regulations and targets set by the – voluntary but rigorously promoted – Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), so there is a lot to work through for a school and their chosen design team.

“A sustainable building has to work in practice as well as on paper,” says Ben Allwood, principal engineer, schools leader and partner at Max Fordham.

“Close collaboration with the school, particularly the people who will be operating the building, throughout the design process and during the early operation of the building, irons out potential issues. It allows the building to be operated effectively, minimising any performance gap. Design-stage performance modelling of the building also helps to give a metric for the users to compare to the actual operation of the building, allowing meaningful analysis of where improvements can be made.”

Sketch of the lower school building to be built at Dulwich College


An appetite for change

Whatever the hurdles, the desire to make change is clear across independent schools, whether that is from teachers, governors or pupils. “At every corner pupils are asking about how we can be more sustainable. What can we do more in terms of recycling, and so on?” says Yiend.

The zeal of the younger generation for change is something that Yiend feels schools should absolutely chime with. “Part of education is being a responsible global citizen; it is part of a social mission. I don’t think you can educate children without a sense of their responsibility to the society they go into.”

‘You don’t have to compromise on design’

Mark Brown, consultant at TG Escapes Modular Eco-Buildings, reassures schools that sustainable buildings can be eye-catching and functional

“Thinking sustainably is essential when considering any infrastructure projects. Not only because of the government’s 2030 and 2050 targets, but because students and their parents are now making choices based on environmental considerations.

“However, using more sustainable materials in construction does not mean you have to compromise on design or functionality. Using modern methods of construction can deliver net zero buildings more cost effectively than traditional techniques and with less disruption to the school day.

“Furthermore, building with timber creates different types of spaces which enhance educational outcomes and wellbeing.”

You might also like: How modular school buildings can benefit your school

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