Rising to the climate change challenge

Facing up to climate change can be a daunting task, with behavioural changes needed at every level of school life by all stakeholders. Three schools talk to Kim Renfrew about the measures they are taking towards sustainability whether small, local, larger-scale or global

Climate change poses an existential threat to the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in April this year that greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high, but it states that there still remains a chance of avoiding climate breakdown through a “now or never” adoption of sustainable, low-carbon ways of living.

Young people, often inspired by peers such as Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg, are at the vanguard of tackling climate change and their role at the forefront of the movement has been recognised by the government. At the COP26 summit in Glasgow last November, for example, the then education secretary Nadim Zahawi set out his proposal for all UK pupils to be taught about climate change, with a plan for equipping teachers to deliver a “model science curriculum” and encouraging students to get involved in the natural world around them.

Helping schools achieve existing environmental ambitions

Adapting the way schools operate in the face of climate change can appear daunting. Alex Green is schools manager of the Let’s Go Zero campaign, which works with schools – including more than 90 independent schools that have already signed up to the scheme – to help them be zero carbon by 2030. She believes schools are best empowered to tackle climate change by supporting them in achieving the existing environmental ambitions they have in place. Green says: “It’s not about adding in additional layers of complexity and requirements; it’s about supporting them to do what they want to do already.”

At girls’ day school South Hampstead High, Alex Wrigglesworth is school consultant teacher for sustainability and a UN-accredited climate change teacher. She believes that, while the concept of a model science curriculum is a starting point, schools need to go much further than this, embedding climate education into every aspect of school life, so that it is “facilitated by every subject and go[es] beyond the boundaries of the academic curriculum”. She adds: “We need to put climate change and sustainability truly at the heart of education, so that young people build a better understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of the issues. Schools need to be supported in building that capacity, so multiple people can work collaboratively; the responsibility shouldn’t just be shouldered by science and geography specialists.”

Every term, girls at Shrewsbury High School are involved in litter-picking within the school and in the community, an initiative that was nominated for a Mayor’s Award community litter picking


Sustainability at the heart of the education model

Shrewsbury High School’s Kim Anderson, who is lead sustainability and climate literacy teacher and Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) teacher representative on the Green Steering Group, concurs: “Traditionally, sustainability and climate change were part of science and geography teachers’ toolkits and kept within the teaching of those subjects. Today, sustainability needs to be at the heart of our education model.”

One of the ways her school is achieving this is through deploying teachers with the requisite expertise “to support the wider school team, including teachers and support staff, in developing the knowledge and skills in this area”, thereby increasing the confidence of all involved in the climate change project.

For example, every year an INSET day is led by sustainability and climate literacy specialists within the school, who are also undertaking eduCCate Global Bronze Award Climate Change Teacher Training, so they can come back and cascade what they have learned through all levels of the team.

South Hampstead High School pupils produce plastic-free, biodegradable poppies, embedded with wildflower seeds, to support The Royal British Legion each year


Students play real roles in carbon reduction

As the schools above make clear, enabling students to be effective in the face of the climate crisis involves more than delivering a curriculum. Abingdon School gives pupils power in its sustainability initiatives, by involving them in evaluation of environmental impact in areas such as energy management, global citizenship and healthy living, and allowing them to focus on areas where carbon emissions can be reduced.

A student-led Eco Committee also meets weekly to take ideas to the school’s Environmental Committee – comprising support and academic staff from departments across the school – to implement. “We believe that our students need to have real ownership of our carbon reduction footprint and, as a result, play a leading role,” says Justin Hodges, director of finance and operations.

We need to put climate change and sustainability truly at the heart of education – Alex Wrigglesworth, South Hampstead High

At Shrewsbury High School, where girls’ ages range from 4–18, initiatives are developed that bring all age groups together in tasks tailored to the year group. “For example, every term our students go out on litter picks,” says Anderson. “The junior students litter-pick within the school grounds while senior students litter-pick in the local community.”

The school also hosted a COP26 Fortnight mini-summit for key stages 3, 4 and 5, with debate and discussion pitched appropriately to students’ ages. Anderson says the mini-summit was “a wonderful opportunity to put eco debate at the heart of school life” as it involved a diverse range of activities, from public speaking to a fair-trade Bake Off to “a promise tree where everyone pledged a sustainable action they could take and then an action that they would like politicians to take”.

At South Hampstead High, initiatives are similarly student-led and teacher-supported. For example, pupils recently got involved in the tender for a new uniform supplier and their “challenging questions about the environmental and social sustainability of the supply chains” affected the final decision, explains Wrigglesworth. Projects unite diverse age groups here, too, such as the sustainable period products event, which for the last three years has brought younger and older students together to discuss how women and girls can bring about social and environmental change.

Shrewsbury High School held a COP26 Fortnight mini-summit with activities including a Bake Off using fair-trade ingredients


Dealing with eco-anxiety

Empowerment also involves equipping students with the means to deal with their concerns about the future. A 2021 Lancet survey of 10,000 children and young people worldwide revealed stark results: 59% were “very or extremely worried” and 84% “at least moderately worried” about climate change. Anderson recognises this trait in students: “They can feel overwhelmed by the complexity and quantity of issues we face and feel that previous generations have left them to solve global problems.”

INSET sessions on managing eco-anxiety in students means teachers are able to facilitate discussions about fears, both within student peer groups and in wider settings. For example, years 7–13 held form discussions on Johan Rockström and David Attenborough’s film Breaking Boundaries, emphasising its positives “so that students could see that, if we all start making sustainable changes, we can make a difference. Each form also discussed positive actions they could take to make a difference and form action plans were created”, says Anderson.

South Hampstead High is in accordance with this problem-solving approach: “Students need to be given hope that there are solutions to the problem, and knowledge needs to go hand in hand with action. Schools are well placed to facilitate this but need to make space for it,” emphasises Wrigglesworth.

Young people… are at the vanguard of tackling climate change and their role at the forefront of the movement has been recognised by the government

Alongside positives, schools inevitably face challenges. Let’s Go Zero’s Alex Green recognises that there can be particular issues for the independent sector, since “a lot of school buildings are old and will still be in use in 2030, 2050 [but] having beautiful historic estates is not an advantage” for achieving zero carbon. These problems are not insurmountable, however. She believes that sometimes “a good old-fashioned building” is “more predictable and simpler” to manage than newer buildings. “There’s a lot that you can do to retrofit older buildings,” she says, also noting that large estates can be advantageous in terms of biodiversity.

Solar panels and insulating grass roofs

Anderson recognises that upgrading Shrewsbury High’s Georgian buildings comes with inevitable challenges, citing the recent Town Walls Houses refurb for the new junior school. In this project, eco features were built in, such as monitoring carbon dioxide levels in classrooms and integrated light-harvesting lighting.

Meanwhile, Abingdon School, founded in 1256, is currently working on a project to renovate and extend its boarding and dining provisions.

Both have state-of-the-art sustainable features built into the very fabric of their structures, embracing new technologies for heating, cooling and insulation, such as the insulating (not to mention biodiverse) grass roof on the pavilion, and solar panels and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery in the boarding facilities. Both feature air source heat pumps. Abingdon has also carefully considered how materials can be reused or upcycled, so that everything is disposed of in an environmentally responsible way.

Hodges says that for his school “the most challenging aspect is the practicality of installing or upgrading systems whilst successfully continuing to operate an active and thriving school”. The task has been made easier, he says, by the assistance of governors, staff, parents and pupils, who are “supportive of wanting our students both to understand the challenge of climate change and to have the tools with which to make a difference”.

The rooftop of Abingdon School’s Sports Centre houses solar panels


Shorter payback periods for investment in sustainable technology

Meanwhile, at South Hampstead High, Wrigglesworth observes they are “fortunate to have a relatively new Senior School building, which opened in 2014” and was rated ‘Excellent’ by sustainable buildings certifiers BREAAM. Plans for redeveloping the Junior School focus on energy conservation and green spaces.

Wrigglesworth recognises that this all involves substantial costs, commenting: “From an estates perspective, one of the challenges we face in school is trying to balance environmental and economic sustainability.” However, she believes, “It’s a false dichotomy because investing in environmental solutions almost always has long-term financial benefits.”

As energy prices rise, the business cases for embracing sustainable technologies tend to become more compelling – Justin Hodges, Abingdon School

In fact, such benefits can be reaped comparatively quickly, especially in the current energy crisis, as Hodges explains: “[At Abingdon School] we pull the business case together in-house, weighing up the sustainability benefits and focusing, in particular, on the payback period for the upfront investment. As energy prices rise, the business cases for embracing sustainable technologies tend to become more compelling with shorter payback periods.”

An artist’s impression of the exteriors of Abingdon School’s boarding accommodation, which will incorporate state-of-the-art technologies for heating, cooling and insulation


Pupils recognise that climate change has different impacts locally and globally

Concern for the planet’s future and an agile response to climate change are strategies that can be taken out of the school grounds and into the wider world, increasing pupils’ awareness of communities of which they are part. South Hampstead High, for example, partnered with FEAST With Us, a local charity working with people in food poverty. Students volunteered to cook for the charity, and the whole school ran a donation drive to collect takeaway boxes to deliver the food. The charity reciprocated by helping map the school’s food supply chain.

Further from home, work with A Partner in Education and the Umubano Academy in Kigali means students meet their Rwandan peers online to discuss subjects like UN Sustainability Goals.

“Pupils acknowledge the similarities and differences in their day-to-day experiences and recognise how climate change issues are having an impact, and being tackled, in different local and global contexts,” says Wrigglesworth. “Through hands-on, collaborative programmes like this, our pupils are empowered to make a positive difference.”

At Shrewsbury High School, there is a strong belief in collaborating with other schools and with the local community. Part of the Girls’ Day School Trust, the school participated in GDST’s Smart Cities Techathon, which challenged pupils across the trust to use technology to improve the built environment. On a global level, the GDST is carbon offset and has paid into projects such as Rural Clean Cooking, India. “The damage from cooking over log burning fires in India mainly impacts women and girls. So, as a girls’ school, we want to be supporting girls and women across the world in any way we can,” says Anderson. Closer to home, the school’s annual Eco Day is a means for pupils to implement environmental action in the local community and, as a result, the school was nominated for a Mayor’s Award for its community litter-picking project.

Ultimately, schools need to recognise that adopting strategies to tackle climate change are “a marathon, not a sprint”, says Let’s Go Zero’s Alex Green. Rather than starting with grandiose global visions for change, says Green, schools can begin by implementing small changes; for example: “Don’t overheat the building. Quite simple, no investment, you just turn the thermostat down. So, it’s about the low-cost, no-cost savings that you can make.” Then it’s time to start thinking “and then what’s the next thing, what’s the next thing, what’s the next thing?” in incremental steps, until big changes are being felt.

You can view Abingdon School’s Build for the Future plans at: www.abingdon.org.uk/about/building-the-future/

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