How are independent schools staying green?

There is nothing like a global emergency to prompt a re-examining of priorities, but has caring for the environment dropped down the list as schools rise to the challenge of the pandemic?

Maintaining the education of the nation’s pupils throughout periods of lockdown, and the associated closure of schools to all but the children of key workers, is certainly plenty to occupy the minds of school leaders, teaching and non-teaching staff.

They could be forgiven for not making time for much else, as they battle with social distancing measures and online teaching and learning. However, to their credit, even during this testing time it seems that schools have not forgotten their pledge to protect our environment.

Lee Wray-Davies, who manages the country’s Eco-Schools network on behalf of its parent organisation, Keep Britain Tidy, has been impressed by the number of new environmental initiatives that schools have launched over this difficult past year.

“We are seeing lots of wonderful eco-projects being shared on social media by our Eco-Schools,” she says. “In fact, less than 24 hours after the announcement that schools were going to close again in January, more than 30 teachers joined one of our online Eco-Schools training sessions, after a hectic day of remote teaching, to discuss how they could continue to work on their eco-actions.”

Wray-Davies reports that, despite the pandemic, the number of schools registering for the Eco-Schools programme is continuing to grow, and a steady stream are still applying for the prestigious international Eco-Schools Green Flag, which recognises pupils’ positive impact on the environment. However, working around the restrictions while schools were open during the autumn term, and keeping pupils on-task with eco initiatives while they study either in small numbers in school or remotely alone at home, is no mean feat.

“They may have had to adapt and scale down some of the plans that involved close-proximity engagement, but schools’ eco leaders have come up with some ingenious ways to continue their planned eco work,” approves Wray-Davies.

“We have really been able to see how important our Eco-Schools network is as a tool to share best practice and are especially pleased to see that our eco-coordinators feel they can ask for support if their eco-actions are a challenge at this time. We have been very proud to see students adapting their activities to the restrictions of the situation and continuing with their eco-committee meetings virtually.”

South Hampstead High School installed a disposable mask recycling point, alongside its eco mascot penguin


South Hampstead High School’s student eco committee is led by one of only a few UN-accredited climate change teachers in the UK, Alex Wrigglesworth.

Throughout the pandemic, Wrigglesworth and her team have continued to galvanise the school community to achieve the school’s Project Zero 2026 goals – to ensure school buildings are as carbon neutral as possible, to limit the use of single-use plastics and to significantly reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.

“Mindful of the additional waste generated during the pandemic, our eco committee installed a disposable mask recycling point at school and offered reusable masks for sale, with all proceeds going towards this year’s school charity, Teenage Cancer Trust,” she explains.

“Any food waste, as a result of short-notice closures, for example, has been donated to local foodbanks and charities, including JW3 Foodbank and West Hampstead Community Foodhub.”

The school’s Junior Eco Week made a very successful transition to an online platform in January and the senior version is likely to go the same way later in the spring term.

“We’re going ahead online and still have lots of inspiring guest speakers, fun activities, workshops and film screenings lined up,” says Wrigglesworth. “The eco committee has continued to produce a regular online newsletter to update and motivate us all to keep environmentalism in mind.

Senior school textile art, South Hampstead High School


“Every pupil in the school has been sent a booklet of eco challenges to work on at home, including local litter-picking, identifying trees in the local park, plant-growing and repurposing old items of clothing.

“Not only does it help inject some fun and encourage students to spend some time off-screen, but these activities help to broaden horizons and prompt our students and their families to think about what they can do to help the world during this time.”

Last November, while students were being taught in socially distanced bubbles on the school campus, St Mary’s School in Colchester achieved its seventh Eco-Schools Green Flag award, recognising ‘excellence in environmental action and learning’.

“Our Eco Team is really embracing the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in and we are recruiting new members all the time,’ says the school’s eco-coordinator, Sarah Wilding.

“Students really took responsibility for eco activities in their year group bubble bases during the autumn term and devised a rota to organise recycling after breaktimes and lunches, including the empty crisp packets that we recycle for Walkers/Terracycle and the food waste that goes to a local biogas digester.”

During the spring term lockdown, year nine students at St Mary’s launched their own competition to raise awareness of the issues surrounding disposable face masks, and students of all ages were tasked with making sculptures from recyclable materials at home.

“I have definitely seen a lot of engagement from St Mary’s students regarding sustainability,’ says Wilding.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the interdependence between the health of our global population, biodiversity and climate change. Climate change is still the biggest threat to our planet – we mustn’t lose sight of that.”

Students at Blackheath High School are keen to take part in eco activities in and outside of school


Another Eco-Schools Green Flag-holder, Blackheath High School, marked its 140th anniversary last year with a commitment to work towards a more sustainable environment – and the global pandemic has not blown staff, students and families off course.

“We set a target of 140 pledges from the whole school that would help improve both our local community and our planet, and we hit this target halfway through the year, despite being in lockdown!” says head Carol Chandler-Thompson.

“A whole-school pledge was to add the study of ocean plastics to our school curriculum (in partnership with environmental not-for-profit Common Seas) and our staff and students’ pledges included eating less meat and dairy, planting trees and wearing layers instead of turning up the heating – all of which they have continued with at home. My own personal pledge was to go digital and not print anything for a whole year, which I’ve managed to stick to.”

Blackheath High School students have benefited from eco activities in uncertain times


There have been benefits for Blackheath High School students, as well as for the environment, says Chandler-Thompson. “The eco activities have given the students a sense of control during a time of such uncertainty and has meant we’ve been able to stay true to our ethos as a school that focuses on the wellbeing of its students, staff and planet.”

Certainly, the shut down of school buildings for two terms out of the last three has given the environment a reprieve from some of the inevitably less-sustainable side-effects of school campus use.

“Many schools have mentioned in their Green Flag applications that they have noticed a reduction in their energy usage and a reduction in waste too,” reports Wray-Davies. “Those schools are looking at how this can continue when things get back to normal.”

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the interdependence between […] our health, biodiversity and climate change. Climate change is still the biggest threat – we mustn’t lose sight of that – Sarah Wilding, St Mary’s School, Colchester

And, given the need for increased hygiene and safety measures in school during the autumn term, eco-coordinators like Sarah Wilding at St Mary’s have had to be creative when mitigating the negative impact on the environment.

“Although we would usually prefer multi-use items where possible, we had no choice but to use more disposables for safety reasons,” she explains. “I worked with the school’s caterers to make sure they were providing recyclable cups and lids for staff drinks, wooden cutlery, and recyclable or compostable cartons for school lunch service.”

Meanwhile, students at Blackheath High School were asked to bring their own personal cutlery sets into school and were also encouraged to use reusable face coverings or make their own where they could.

“I’m proud of how the whole school has responded to the environmental challenges that have come with the pandemic,” says Chandler-Thompson. “While we’ve had to adapt our sustainability initiatives, our staff and students have stayed committed to making a difference where they safely can, and we couldn’t ask for more.”

In all, it seems that schools are continuing to consider the environment and its sustainability, while at the same time responding to the unprecedented needs of the global pandemic.

“Schools have used this past year as an opportunity to take their Eco-Schools activities even further,” says Wray-Davies.

“They’ve moved beyond the classroom and involved families in their sustainability initiatives, increasing the reach and impact of their eco-committees. As always in education, we adapt and we change given the circumstances – schools will never let eco-action fall off the radar.”

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