Sima Goldsmith considers the environmental and financial implications of the sustainable schools agenda

The government has signalled its intention to raise the profile of sustainability for schools over the next few years. While sustainable development comes from a realisation that we cannot continue to manage the earth’s natural resources in a careless manner (see definition below), it also has key financial implications for schools. Many schools are waking up to the idea that a drive to become more sustainable and reduce their ‘ecological footprint’, can be coupled with efficiency savings on a variety of fronts. They are realising that such work can also help to develop environmental consciousness among staff and students alike, with the potential to link to key areas of the curriculum such as citizenship. This article explores what sustainability and education for sustainable development means in the context of schools, explains what practical measures you can take in your school and outlines the key economic benefits of embracing the green agenda. The fact that sustainable development is now incorporated into one of the eight strands of the National College for School Leadership’s Bursar Development Programme suggests that this is another aspect of school management which is likely to fall to bursars and business managers to supervise.

What is sustainable development?

There are many definitions of sustainable development. A widely used and accepted definition is development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). To live sustainably means finding ways of developing that will improve the quality of life for everyone, including future generations, and learning to live in harmony with the environment that supports us.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

A key output from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was Agenda 21. Agenda 21 called for ‘education for sustainable development’, which was seen as central to any policies and programmes promoting sustainability. ESD is a vision of education that empowers the learners of today to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. It has a number of key messages at its core. There has been a continuing, growing realisation over the years that the current model of development is unsustainable. Its effects can be seen globally, from the loss of biodiversity caused by depletion of large areas of rainforests and over-fishing of rivers and seas, to the  impact our excessive consumption and waste habits have on the environment. Air and water pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming are some of the problems that are increasing as a result of the way we live our lives. Sustainable development is a global issue that affects us all and one that we must all face up to if we are to avoid long term damage to the environment. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring we live sustainably. However, having said that, young people today are the decision makers of tomorrow and education for sustainable development plays a crucial role in ensuring they are provided with the correct skills, values and knowledge to make informed decisions at local and global level. As such, schools are being encouraged to embed the principles of sustainable development into their curriculum and in the systems and policies of the institution.

A new sustainability framework for schools

Although many schools have already made some headway towards becoming sustainable schools, the Department for Education and Skills wants to see many more schools moving towards sustainability. The government has laid out its expectations for sustainable schools up to 2020 under a National Framework. The Framework introduces eight ‘doorways’ under which schools can choose to begin or extend their sustainable school activity. The Framework provides practical guidance to schools on how to operate in a more sustainable way. The eight ‘doorways’ are:

  •       food and drink
  •       energy and water
  •       travel and traffic
  •       purchasing and waste
  •       buildings and grounds
  •       inclusion and participation
  •       local wellbeing
  •       global citizenship

It is up to each school to decide how it chooses to tackle the ‘doorways’. They can choose to either deal with each ‘doorway’ individually or as part of a whole school action plan. Whichever option your school takes, the result will be improvement across the school’s curriculum, campus, and in its relationship with the local community. Importantly, there are also financial benefits for your school no matter which aspect you chose to address first. Further information on the eight ‘doorways’ can be found in the Sustainable Schools area of TeacherNet at The website is designed to help schools on their journey to sustainability. It provides useful information for all sectors of the school community and offers a number of excellent online and downloadable tools to help schools identify the best route to becoming more sustainable.

What is a sustainable school?

 A sustainable school is one that aims to prepare its students for a lifetime of sustainable living through its teaching, the school environment and the daily running of the school. A school built on the core principles of sustainable development will encourage care for ourselves, others, the planet and future generations. The high priority given to the wellbeing of its students and the school environment is integral to its success as a sustainable school across the school, curriculum and community. The school building and grounds become a sustainable environment where students can see what a sustainable model looks like through their active participation in the ongoing improvements to the school. In a sustainable school:

  • rainwater is collected for the maintenance of school grounds
  • water will be saved by installing water-saving devices in cisterns and through the use of flow regulating taps
  • green cleaning materials are used to protect the environment
  • energy use is reduced by switching off equipment that is not being used, by using energy efficient light bulbs and using thermostat controls on radiators. Some of the school’s energy is provided through renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines
  • waste is kept to a minimum and where possible the re-use and recycling of products such as paper are encouraged and reinforced
  • students are encouraged to eat healthy foods and drinks that have been sourced, when possible, from local suppliers with good environmental and ethical credentials. Where possible, most students walk, cycle or use public transport to get to school
  • the school promotes the importance of local and global citizenship. The school is actively involved in community projects that improve the area for those living there. The school acts as model of good global citizenship, creating a generation of globally aware citizens with mutual respect for all.

What are schools are doing?

There are many schools currently working on successful, sustainable development initiatives. Some schools are choosing to tackle a single issue such as minimising accidents caused by congestion, while others are taking a wholeschool approach to sustainability. Thousands of schools are currently participating in local and/or national campaigns, programmes and award schemes. Involvement with an existing campaign, programme or award scheme enables a school to tap into information, resources, guidance, support and sometimes funding. The following are proving popular with schools in particular:

      Healthy Schools Campaign –

      Walk to School Campaign –

      Safe Routes to School Projects –

      Growing Schools Programme –

      The Eco Schools Award Scheme –

      The International Schools Award –

Over 15,000 schools are now participating in the Growing Schools Programme alone, which aims to encourage and inspire all schools to use the outdoor classroom as a resource for learning across the curriculum. It focuses in particular on food, farming and the countryside. At the time of writing, 4,500 schools were registered with the Eco-Schools Award Scheme, an international programme for environmental education for sustainability. The scheme provides a simple framework to enable schools to analyse and assess their environment and develop a plan to become more sustainable. The students take the lead role in tackling issues such as litter, waste, healthy lifestyles, energy and water saving, transport to schools and developing the school grounds with the help of teachers and outside agencies.

The benefits of sustainability

The key benefit of any sustainable school is the role it plays in imparting sustainable values to the decision makers of the future. It will be these values that become fundamental in ensuring they learn to live in ways that maintain their own and other people’s quality of life, while protecting the earth’s resources for current and future generations. This benefit aside, there are many other benefits to being a sustainable school that need to be considered.

Efficient environment management

The operating and capital expenses of running a school can be reduced considerably by efficient environmental management. Money can be saved through energy, water, waste and purchasing efficiency creating a ‘win-win’ situation for both the school and wider environment.

Environmental and ethical purchasing policy

Such a policy ensures products are, where possible, sourced from local suppliers, are reusable and/or recycled products and produced to high environmental and ethical standards. For most schools, the cost of products is the main factor in determining what products are purchased. Fortunately, there are now many suppliers providing products that meet the necessary standards at competitive prices. Using green cleaning products does not need to be any more expensive than normal cleaning products and helps protect fish and aquatic life that live in our rivers by protecting our water systems from pollution.

Waste reduction

Waste is a major problem in the United Kingdom, with landfill sites becoming scarcer and waste disposal costs increasing. The three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – need to be integrated into all aspects of school life to help stem the increasing national waste problem. Waste reduction not only has a positive environmental impact but can help schools make significant cost savings. Most schools spend on average between £300 and £1,000 a year on waste disposal and produce a minimum of one tonne of waste per term. Most of the waste generated in schools comes from paper and paper products. Reduce the amount of waste that needs to be disposed of and you immediately start saving money on waste disposal costs. One school in Stockport has managed to bring in over £10,000 over five years just by collecting paper from the school and community and selling it for recycling, with the money used to help buy a new mini bus.

Greener, safer travel

Greener travel arrangements to school such as walking, cycling and using public transport have many benefits. Less cars on the road contributes to safer roads with fewer road accidents and casualties and a decrease in pollutants such as carbon monoxide near schools. Walking and cycling increases students’ fitness levels and concentration and instills in them positive habits for life.

Healthier diets

A healthier diet for students leads not only to healthier students, but will improve their concentration and learning outcomes. A school that sources fresh, locally, ethically produced, healthy food products will also protect the environment and improve students’ understanding of food and where it comes from.


A sustainable school and its local area provide a virtually limitless resource for learning about sustainable development and achieving curriculum requirements in core subjects. Students are motivated because the learning is relevant to their everyday lives.


The school is a model for sustainability within the local community, increasing its reputation and attracting more students and local partnerships, often with major financial benefits. The students’ work with the local community on shared issues such as congestion and safety builds trust within the community. This helps to build a feeling of trust with the community which will be necessary when bids are being made for external funding and improves community cohesion generally.

School environment

The active involvement of students in caring for, and in some cases designing, the school environment results in increased respect for the environment, with problems relating to vandalism and litter being reduced. The involvement of students can also lead to improvements in their educational achievements, health and emotional wellbeing.


Although Ofsted does not directly evaluate sustainable development, activities that promote sustainable development can boost performance across all Ofsted’s inspection themes and can therefore feature within the school’s self-evaluation form (SEF). A sustainable school selfevaluation tool has been developed based  on the Ofsted SEF to help schools involved in sustainable development document their performance and identify key priorities for development. For more information go to

Practical measures you can take

There are many ways to get started. Some take little time and money while others require a major time commitment and in some circumstances a large capital commitment. Here are some examples of what you can do:

Have an energy audit carried out

Measures taken to improve energy efficiency in a school can help to substantially reduce costs and help combat climate change. An energy audit will provide detailed information on how energy is used across the school and provide an action plan to reduce energy consumption. The Carbon Trust offers a free site survey to schools with energy bills exceeding £50,000 per year. The survey will identify simple no cost or low cost measures that can help cut energy bills by up to 20%. These measures include updating heating, improving insulation and installing energy-efficient lighting. Woodhouse Sixth Form College, in Finchley, had an annual energy bill of £50,000 and like many schools a limited budget, so needed to find ways of reducing its energy consumption. After carrying out a site survey, the Carbon Trust was able to recommended simple low cost changes to the lighting and insulation, coupled with an awareness programme. This has helped cut the school’s energy consumption by 6% in a year at a time of growth for the school. More information is available on the Carbon Trust website (, including a free schools’ campaign pack. The pack contains a guide to the simple steps a school can take to cut energy use, an energy walk-round checklist, and a selection of posters and stickers to help raise awareness around your school. This is just one example of a topic which is very suitable for including in the curriculum as well as tackling as part of the sustainability drive of a school.

Consider renewable energy

Renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels and biomass chimneys are increasingly becoming part of the fabric of schools. Although renewable energy saves money, the initial capital outlay to install renewable energy technology can be high and funding is crucial for most schools who wish to proceed with plans to install renewable energy. Fortunately, funding can be found from a number of sources including the government, company donations and sponsorship and a number of trusts. Schools could benefit from capital grants awarded under the under The Low Carbon Buildings Programme run by the DTI. Further information can be obtained from Utilities companies such as EDF Energy, Npower, Powergen and ScottishPower are often major community investment funders and can be a very good source of funding. Nidderdale High School and Community College in Harrogate raised more than £90,000 in funding to install its wind turbine in 2003, with £30,000 of this provided by Npower. The turbine has provided 15% of the school’s electricity needs and has saved nearly £3,000 a year since its installation.

Have a waste audit carried out

A waste audit is an excellent way of understanding the nature and quantity of the waste your school produces and will result in a waste plan that can spark positive changes. Waste reductions of at least 40% are possible with a concerted effort.   Waste Watch ( is the leading national organisation that promotes and encourages action on waste reduction, reuse and recycling. Unfortunately, there is no national organisation that carries out waste audits in schools on an ad hoc basis. The Waste Watch education team provides a waste audit service in those areas where they have a contract to deliver education programmes. They currently run intensive education projects in partnership with Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, Harrogate District Council and Nottinghamshire County Council. They also run an education programme in south and west London. If you want to have a waste audit carried out, it is also worth contacting your local authority to see if they can help, as there are some active programmes underway in forward-thinking authorities.

Develop your recycling

Recycling is a measure that can be implemented relatively easily and not only helps the environment, but can help schools raise cash. Aluminium cans, printer cartridges and mobile phones are just some of the items that many schemes will pay money for. The Recycool programme ( is a great scheme for schools which can help you turn your recycling activities into cash.

Consider those small changes

Don’t forget that small changes can make a big difference. The following measures can be taken immediately and require no or little cost or little time to implement, and many will actually save you money in the long term:

  • purchase fairtrade goods such as tea, coffee, orange juice
  • purchase recycled products such as toilet paper
  • purchase green cleaning materials
  • reuse paper and make sure paper is used on both sides
  • recycle where possible
  • install energy efficient lightbulbs
  • turn lights off if they are not needed
  • switch off computers and photocopiers if they are not being used
  • recharge batteries – even ordinary batteries can be recharged using a special charger
  • turn off dripping taps

The Sustainable Schools website contains further information, inspiration, resources and workshop for ESD. It can be found at

Useful websites – The Centre for Alternative Technology, based in Wales, is one of Europe’s leading eco-centres. – A charity committed to developing citizenship skills and knowledge, providing plenty of teachers’ resources on their website.

Sima Goldsmith is a consultant specialising in sustainable development.