In this post-‘Blue Planet’ era, a growing number of independent schools are really striving to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
“Over the past two years we have seen a huge increase in the number of schools joining or re-engaging with our Eco-Schools programme, bringing the total number in England to 20,000,” says Lee Wray-Davies, who manages the country’s Eco-Schools network on behalf of its parent organisation, Keep Britain Tidy.
Schools are offered free resources and advice to run eco-friendly activities with the aim of qualifying for an Eco-Schools Green Flag award that recognises the difference they have made to the environment.
“The Eco-Schools programme is pupil-led, involving hands-on learning that gets the whole school and the wider community involved in exciting environmental projects,” says Wray-Davies. “Not only does this raise awareness and improve the school environment, but it can create financial savings for schools as well.”
St Mary’s School in Colchester is one of nine Ambassador Eco-Schools in the UK and shares its eco-ideas with other schools and organisations across the country. There is such a commitment to being environmentally friendly that a green activity happens at St Mary’s every school day.
“Whether they’re emptying the recycling bins and packaging up the paper or even pens and bras that we collect to be used again, planting their own vegetables in the garden, making sure that all the lights are off in classrooms that are not being used, or surveying our local area to check that the flora and fauna is thriving, our students are thinking about their environment and looking after it all the time,” says St Mary’s geography teacher Sarah Wilding, last year’s Eco-Schools Co-ordinator of the Year.
“From kindergarten to year 11, students at St Mary’s come up with their own solutions to the environmental problems we face both in school and beyond – they know that no one is too young to have a positive impact.”
‘Project Zero’ is a pupil-led, whole-school strategic initiative that has been brought in at London’s South Hampstead High School (SHHS) to improve the school’s environmental credentials in time for its 150th anniversary in 2026. The project aims to significantly reduce the carbon footprint and contribution to landfill the school generates.
The 21st century is a time of unique opportunities and challenges; we have a critical role to play in preparing our students to help create a better future
So far, the student Eco Committee (led by UN-accredited climate change teacher Alex Wrigglesworth) has set up recycling points for crisp packets and batteries, and persuaded the head to commit to carbon off-setting flights on international school trips. They have also lobbied successfully for a meat-free school lunch every week.
SHHS’s headmistress, Vicky Bingham, is not afraid to lead by example – she has vowed to buy no new clothes for 365 days. This has inspired the students (girls, aged four to 18) to make all sorts of environmentally-friendly personal pledges of their own, including coming to school by skateboard, using only sustainable period products and relinquishing single-use plastics and unsustainable palm oil products.
“The 21st century is a time of unique opportunities and challenges; we have a critical role to play in preparing our students to help create a better future,” says Bingham. “We encourage every student to find her voice – and use it.”
This is no empty promise – permission is granted for each SHHS pupil to attend one ‘Fridays for Future’ climate strike per academic year.
Last year’s annual whole-school 10km walk ended at the Houses of Parliament, where the head girls delivered hundreds of letters from students, written on scraps of recycled paper, urging their MPs to take action with regard to climate change.
There is no doubt that students can make a difference, but so can senior leadership, particularly when it comes to making decisions about the development and operation of the school.
When Marymount School in Surrey needed six new classrooms, the senior leadership team turned to The Stable Company for a sustainable building to make use of a neglected area of the school grounds.
Clad in western red cedar, with energy-conserving features including smart lighting (which dims according to the amount of natural sunlight in the building) and air source heat pumps (which also keep the learning environment fresh), there are benefits for teachers and their classes as well as the environment – and the school’s bank balance.
“Timber is a carbon-sequestering material that removes and stores greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, which contrasts sharply with the energy-intensive, mineral-based techniques that underpin masonry or steel-frame construction – estimates suggest that the building industry accounts for 40% of global emissions,” says Gareth Barber, founder of The Stable Company.
“Also, as a general rule, a timber-frame classroom comes in at a cheaper cost than the equivalent constructed with bricks-and-mortar or steel, especially when factoring in long-term running-cost savings.”
“Environmental friendliness is an increasingly important factor for schools when choosing a building,” says Mark Brown of TG Escapes, which designed and constructed a timber eco-nursery for Bickley Park, with a sedum roof, complete with sun pipes to bring natural light into the classroom from above and solar panels to generate energy.
Brown continues: “Modular off-site construction uses less energy and time than traditional builds and the lightweight system is less harmful to the surrounding environment. These buildings can look great and really save energy.”
It’s not just classrooms that TG Escapes has provided for schools – studios, chapels, canteens, sports pavilions, offices, training centres, sports halls and outdoor learning centres also lend themselves well to eco-friendly construction.
But even school buildings that are not new can be run with energy efficiency and the environment in mind. Over the last 12 years, eco-initiatives at St Mary’s have not only changed attitudes but they have also had an impact on the school’s day-to-day running costs.
“We always consider the environmentally sound option when carrying out refurbishment work at school,” says Wilding.
“We have seen a gradual decline in energy consumption since installing radiators with thermostatic controls and photovoltaic solar panels for water heating and we are piloting sensor lighting in high-traffic areas.
“Water-saving devices in the toilet cisterns have reduced our water consumption and we are investigating the feasibility of installing a rainwater harvesting system. This all makes a difference to the planet and to our finances.”
With all those corridors, cleaning is another ongoing cost to schools and to the planet, but there are ways to reduce the use of natural resources and to make sure that any agents are not harmful to the environment.
School contract cleaning company Nviro has a culture of ‘cleaning with a conscience’ – on schools’ hard floors, its operatives use i-mops, which use only nine litres of water, compared to the 40 litres used when cleaning with a mop and bucket over the same floor area, and are much faster.
Lunchtime brings another opportunity to help save the planet. Just as the wider catering industry has been forced to clean up its act after coming under fire from the public, school dinners have been the subject of scrutiny from students.
In common with SHHS, many schools have bowed to pressure from pupils to introduce a meat-free meal on a regular basis to reduce the impact on the environment of the rearing of animals for food.
There is a growing commitment among school catering managers to source ingredients more locally and to consider the sustainability of Friday’s fish in particular.
We have nominated eco-warriors across the school who hold us to account
Thomas’s London Day Schools, working in partnership with Pelican Procurement Services, has recently started to make its own smoothies to cut down on non-reusable packaging.
“We were serving 2,500 smoothies in cartons with straws every week as a pudding option across our four preparatory schools,” admits Mark Newman, Thomas’s general catering manager.
“Instead, we decided to make our own smoothies, which has reduced packaging as well as our food waste – we use the fruit not used at the breakfast service. Then there’s yogurt, which used to be served in individual cartons and is now bought in five-gallon containers and decanted into bowls.”
Thomas’s has also taken the decision to use containers made from recycled or compostable materials (such as Vegware) and, like many other schools, has asked parents to send their children to school with reusable water bottles.
“Pressure for change comes from several quarters,” says Newman, “including the pupils themselves. We have nominated eco-warriors across the school who hold us to account.”
In this time of eco-anxiety, encouraging students to throw themselves into activities that have a clear benefit to the planet and also to their school is something many school leaders are happy to embrace.
Pass on a greener world
Jeremy Williams, environmental author and activist, highlights the opportunities for schools to model a sustainable future
Britain has a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This will involve every institution in the country, and schools can start early and lead the way. In fact, many of their students will expect no less.
Inspired by Greta Thunberg and the school strike movement, young people are energised around climate change. It is their future at stake, and they are looking to adults to take responsibility. This can be a challenge, but we want our young people to be passionate about making the world a better place – that’s the kind of active citizenship the 21st century needs.
Schools can nurture and direct this interest and collaborate with young people to improve the school. Take part in Eco-Schools and set a target to get that Green Flag accreditation. Plant trees. Investigate solar power, solar hot water and green roofs. Ensure all new buildings and renovations are the highest level of energy efficiency. Improve bike storage facilities and offer Bikeability courses. Take part in Walk to School Week. Work with young people to shape a greener school and a more sustainable future.
This feature is sponsored by Green Modular.