As Ofsted urges schools to make sustainability a top priority in their improvement plans, David Gordon looks at what governors can do to help their school go green

Is your school making enough progress towards sustainability?
Ofsted has put the focus back on sustainable development in schools with the publication of a report based on a survey of the efforts of a group of 14 schools in England over a three-year period.

The report recommends that sustainability has to be a top priority in all schools’ improvement plans if the government’s target for all schools to be sustainable schools by 2020 is to be met.

The DCSF picked up the theme at the end of January when the schools secretary, Ed Balls, announced a series of measures designed to help schools play their part in fighting climate change, while also saving money.

‘Governors and headteachers also need to seize the initiative and not bury their heads in the sand,’ he said. ‘And so later this year, we will launch an awareness campaign to support them to mobilise the whole of their school from teachers to pupils to parents, and create an energy and climate change aware school culture.’

Plenty of material already exists to help schools plan and implement sustainable development. Much of it focuses on the eight ‘doorways’, which were at the centre of the government’s national framework for sustainable schools when it was published in 2006. Each doorway covers a different area for action.

The doorways are listed below, along with a summary of the expectation the government has of the position schools should have reached in each area by the year 2020.

The eight doorways

Doorway Expectation
Food and drink all schools are model suppliers of healthy, local and sustainable food and drink
Energy and water all schools are models of energy efficiency, renewable energy use and water management
Travel and traffic all schools are models of sustainable travel
Purchasing and waste all schools are models of waste minimisation and sustainable procurement
Buildings and grounds all school buildings make visible use of sustainable design features and develop their grounds in ways that help pupils learn about the natural world and sustainable living
Inclusion and participation all schools are models of social inclusion, enabling all pupils to participate fully in school life
Local well-being all schools are models of good corporate citizenship within their local areas
Global dimension all schools are models of good global citizenship

In a report, Schools and Sustainability: A climate for change? published in 2008, Ofsted found that most schools had limited knowledge of sustainability and placed little emphasis on teaching or promoting it. Although some schools were well on the way to meeting the 2020 targets, the majority showed a lack of awareness of sustainable development and very few teachers knew about the sustainable schools programme.

While that report was being compiled, Ofsted was also following the progress of eight primary schools, five secondary schools and one special school more closely to identify good practice that could be passed on to other schools.

After visiting each school three times during the three-year study, the inspectors concluded that a focus on sustainable development is not only having a direct impact on the actions of pupils and their families but on the wider community. Schools were also found to be reaping benefits from improved provision themselves through cost savings and better behaviour. The latest report found primary schools were making greater progress than secondary schools.

A whole-school approach to sustainability involves integrating the subject into the curriculum and other aspects of pupil behaviour as well as operating and managing the school’s premises in an environmentally friendly way.

Focusing on teaching and the activities of pupils, the report found that the schools that had made the greatest progress showed many of the following characteristics:

  • The plans for each year group included themes related to sustainability.
  • Schemes of work and lesson plans emphasised enquiry and research, and provided opportunities for pupils to put these approaches into practice.
  • Green issues, such as energy saving, recycling and healthy eating, were included in many aspects of the curriculum.
  • Pupils were given opportunities to develop their speaking, listening and writing skills through work on sustainability.
  • The schools periodically held themed weeks and high-profile events to promote an understanding of environmental and sustainability issues among pupils and parents. Examples included a yearly ‘Energy Week’ when every class focused on how to save water and to recycle more efficiently.
  • Good use of the outdoor environment provided pupils with opportunities to learn in a practical context.
  • Displays and art work around the school highlighted the increased focus on education for sustainability and celebrated pupils’ achievements in this area.

By the end of the survey, the schools that were most successful in moving towards sustainability were also showing distinctive characteristics in the way they were run. The most effective schools demonstrated many of the following features:

  • The managers and governors had introduced energy and procurement policies that were designed to make the school more sustainable and to ensure that the best use was made of all resources.
  • The schools were very adept at reducing consumption and re-using resources, especially paper. As a result, there was less to recycle.
  • The lavatories had been refurbished and re-designed to include devices to save energy and water.
  • All the staff worked regularly with the pupils on a range of projects to maintain and improve the school grounds and to keep them free of litter.
  • Garden spaces were well cared for and used regularly to support learning.
  • The pupils were increasingly keen to recycle materials and reduce waste. They carefully monitored the use of energy by ensuring, for example, that taps and light switches were turned off when not in use.

Ofsted has now recommended that schools should:

  • make sustainability a priority in their improvement plans to ensure they are meeting their commitment to become a sustainable school by 2020;
  • develop a whole-school approach to education for sustainability in the curriculum to enable it to become firmly embedded in teaching and learning;
  • ensure that all pupils have access to out-of-classroom learning to support their understanding of the need to care for their environment and to promote their physical and mental well-being;
  • provide appropriate training and support to inform and engage teachers so that they understand what is required to make a school sustainable;
  • ensure that they manage the school estate carefully and become models of good practice for sustainable living and working.

The full report, Education for sustainable development: Improving schools – improving lives can be found on the Ofsted website.

A good starting point for governors intent on following these recommendations is the government’s guide: Strategic, challenging and accountable – A governor’s guide to Sustainable Schools, which can be downloaded from here on Teachernet.

The guide tells governors that they – working with the headteacher and school leadership team – are ‘uniquely tasked with building coherence among a range of school policies and practices’. It adds: ‘They do this while paying attention and responding to detailed information within and outside the school that may affect their ability to meet their school improvement or development objectives.’

To get this process under way it offers six questions for ‘big-picture thinking’ on developing sustainability. The ideas proposed in the guide are backed up with a Toolkit comprising a PowerPoint presentation, notes and a handout.

Schools can analyse and evaluate their performance using the interactive S3 tool developed by the DCSF, which has recently been updated and can be downloaded via here on Teachernet.
Another practical step that schools can take is to start using a digital energy display meter, which the DCSF says could cut bills by up to £3,000 a year as well as reducing a school’s carbon footprint. As part of his January speech, Ed Balls announced a scheme to provide these free to schools in England.

Under the scheme, a new electrical sub-meter and data logger will be installed. The meter will be connected to the existing main electrical distribution board in the school switch room and will measure the school’s consumption of electricity. This information can be relayed to up to five networked PCs, which will show data in a dashboard graphic that can be used as a tool for teaching and learning.

Schools can register online for their free energy display meter at

More opportunities to build sustainability into school life are being provided by CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). It is encouraging schools to put a ‘Green Day’ into their timetable on any day during the four weeks beginning June 4. To help schools plan their event this year, CABE has published a second edition of Green Day: A climate change activity kit for schools, which includes more than 100 curriculum-linked ideas for lessons. It can be downloaded from here on CABE.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000