Boost your eco strategy

How can schools take a lead in fixing the planet for younger generations? Our comprehensive guide by editor Jane Hughes covers how to fund and resource greener projects at your school

There’s often a disjuncture between what is taught in schools about the environment – and what is practised. Students learn about the science and impact of climate change and biodiversity loss, while around them sometimes not even the basics are put in place. In secondary schools I’ve seen lots of windows left open above radiators turned on full blast (because they lack working thermostats). Lights and computers are frequently left on in empty classrooms, while exercise books and canteen food may still come wrapped in plastic, and playgrounds are frequently strewn with throwaway containers.

Of course, some schools are doing an incredible job of going greener. Indeed the Eco Schools initiative has helped shape a pupil-driven approach to championing such agendas. But not enough is being done quickly enough – particularly in secondary schools – to tackle the biggest issues of our time.

As ever, much of the problem comes down to a lack of funding and government vision over the last decade or so. Many school buildings are desperately inefficient and outdated (and sometimes even downright dangerous). Staff are often too stretched to implement even basic recycling and energy-saving routines.

But it is possible to build a whole-school culture of responsibility towards the environment, along with a holistic energy strategy. We can’t fix everything, but on the following pages we have compiled some of the best ideas and resources to support schools – from gardens and green energy to recycling and water efficiency.

Be energy efficient

In 2022, the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy set a target for all schools to have a climate action plan in place by 2025. While a few schools have been able to secure funding for new net zero buildings, most must focus on reducing carbon emissions through efficiency savings and use of renewable energy. School decarbonisation advisor Lynne Moore suggests replacing any boiler installed before 2005 (as it will be highly inefficient), and potentially switching to air source or ground source heat pumps that can be used for both heating and cooling. She recommends installing LED lighting and double glazing and stresses the importance of insulating hot water tanks and pipes – and possibly replacing them with point-of-use electric water heating. Insulating lofts, walls and floors will also make a massive difference. These are big jobs but they do bring long-term savings. Replacing old lighting with LED could save an average-sized primary school £4,000 to £6,000 a year and a secondary school as much as £3,000 a month. Currently, schools can bid for funding through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. But the process is highly competitive, and schools often hire consultants to increase their chances of success. The DfE’s energy efficiency grant provided some help with retrofitting of school buildings in England, with the average secondary receiving £42,000 and the average primary £16,000. But the Let’s Go Zero campaign – which is supporting schools to become zero carbon by 2030 – says this funding is ‘a sticking plaster when a long-term solution is desperately needed’. Let’s Go Zero’s Alex Green has called for ‘a government commitment to retrofitting every school in the UK’.

Let’s Go Zero is linking schools with opportunities for funding and support in seven key areas: energy, food, procurement, waste, water use, travel and school grounds. It recently launched a £10 million initiative to fund 30 regional school climate advisors to help schools fast track changes, and hopes to unlock finance at scale from the public and private sectors.

The good news is that even straightforward measures, such as tracking and managing your energy usage, can make a big difference and should form a central strand of your energy strategy. ‘The first step is to identify when, where and how you consume energy so that you can see where resources and money are being wasted,’ says energy consultant Tim Warneford.

‘Approximately 60% of school energy consumption happens outside of teaching hours, whether in the evenings, weekends or holidays. So installing smart meters and attaching loggers to your distribution boards will allow you to profile consumption data.’ Alongside this, you can commission or carry out a school energy audit, ideally using a thermal camera. Installing thermostats and creating a whole-school culture of energy awareness (whereby people turn off light switches and computers when not in use) can also create low-cost wins.

The charity Energy Sparks offers an online analysis tool and education programme to help schools reduce their carbon footprint and teach pupils energy saving and sustainability life skills. By analysing a school’s gas, electricity and solar data, Energy Sparks shows pupils and staff how much energy is used each day and suggests how to reduce carbon emissions. Over the 2022-23 academic year, the average Energy Sparks primary school saved at least £3,000 on their energy bill, with secondaries saving at least £12,000. Currently most schools pay £525 a year for this service (which includes weekly energy use alerts, education workshops and audits). A few funded places are available and the charity is seeking to expand this offer, so do check the website.

Energy Sparks Successes

Damers First School in Dorset cut its electricity consumption by 12% a year in an energy efficiency drive that included holiday switch-offs. Over the 2023 Easter holiday, energy use fell by 43% compared to Easter 2022. Pupils at the three-form entry primary were involved in making sure that equipment was switched off. The money saved is used for items such as toys, PE equipment and school trips. According to teacher Edd Moore: ‘Energy Sparks has supported pupils’ knowledge about reducing energy use – and they are taking what they have learned and implementing it into their own homes.’

Harris Academy Sutton saved around £20,000 a year by installing an automatic shutdown of ICT equipment in the evenings.

Trinity C of E First School in Frome shaved £1,600 a year from its electricity bill by replacing ageing ICT servers. The £4,200 investment was returned in two and a half years.

Go solar

Solar PV panels are increasingly popular. Hundreds of schools are benefiting from community-funded solar arrays, with many schools renting their roofs to avoid upfront costs – and then and then paying a lower rate per kilowatt hour. With energy prices projected to rise further, schools could make substantial savings over a 25-year contract.

The Schools Energy Co-operative is a social enterprise that installs community community-funded solar panel systems free of charge and pays all profits to member schools. It has more than 90 schools in its network, including partnerships with local authorities.

Other not-for-profit suppliers include Solar for Schools and Big Solar Co-op. Small school sites in London can access grants from the GLA’s London Community Energy Fund (LCEF).

Community funded solar installation

Following an energy audit, Furze Platt Senior School identified that generating green electricity through solar panels would have a big impact on reducing its carbon emissions. The school – in Maidenhead, Berkshire – decided to work with a local not-for-profit community benefit society (CBS), MaidEnergy, which generated a no-obligation proposal to ‘hire’ the school roofs and install a 224kW solar array. This was based on 12 months of electricity bills combined with detailed online aerial surveys.

No capital outlay was required from the school and the proposal set out the rate the school would be charged for the solar electricity (in pence per kilowatt hour). This was substantially lower than the rate from the National Grid and MaidEnergy estimated the school would save hundreds of thousands of pounds over the length of the 15-year contract. The solar array was installed in summer 2023 and a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) was set up.

Approximately 30% of Furze Platt’s electricity consumption is now provided by solar panels, saving around 20% on its total electricity bill (with the school continuing to purchase the rest of its electricity from the grid). The school has significantly reduced its carbon emissions and now benefits from a long-term, renewable energy supply at a low cost. Long term PPA arrangements provide schools such as Furze Platt with more resilience against future energy market hikes. During the PPA term, all monitoring, maintenance, insurance and repair costs relating to the solar array are covered by the CBS.

To fund the installation, MaidEnergy launched a community share offer. Investors included members of the school community, with the minimum investment being just £100. All investors benefit from a good return, while also fighting climate change.

  • Lynne Moore, decarbonisation lead for schools, Our Community Enterprise

Greening and rewilding

Trees, vegetation and green spaces act as vital carbon sinks and oases of shade and restoration to benefit our mental health. What’s more, they help clean our polluted air and are vital habitats to help combat biodiversity loss. With the land belonging to schools roughly the size of Birmingham, the newly launched National Education Nature Park is inviting schools to help create a network of green parks. Funded by the DfE in partnership with the RHS, the Natural History Museum and Esri UK, the idea is for schools to look at any space they can make greener – and to involve pupils in carrying out a baseline wildlife survey. Pupils will have opportunities to act for nature on their school sites, from building rain gardens to growing pollinator-friendly plants.

The initiative offers a bank of resources, from digital tools to classroom activities and interactive maps displaying the growing Nature Park across the school estate. Funding is available for teacher training and new Climate Action Awards will recognise schools which have supported students in developing green skills and championing nature. ‘Gardening can be integral in helping to address multiple crises, from the climate emergency to biodiversity loss,’ says Clare Matterson, director general of the RHS. ‘We want to empower young people to understand that saving the world starts at their fingertips.’

Djanogly Sherwood Academy

Students and staff at this urban primary school in Nottingham won a £1,000 Ovo Foundation Nature Prize to buy hydro-veg kits for the playground. The school’s Green Leaders will be responsible for looking after the kits and growing the food which will then be given out to local families. The school has no green space on site and will use the hydro-veg kits to teach its students about sustainable food growing in urban areas.

Green resources

  • The Linnean Society of London offers Local Nature Grants of up to £1,000 to provide young people with an opportunity to take the lead on projects that involve local nature and natural spaces. The next application deadline is October and typical projects include running a school festival about nature, building a community garden and creating a nature walk.
  • The Ovo Foundation Nature Prize offers ten prizes of £1,000 and 15 prizes of £200 for schools that increase pupils’ access to nature, as well as boosting biodiversity in school grounds. The competition has a one-month window for entries in the autumn of 2024.
  • The Woodland Trust offers hundreds of thousands of trees to schools, with two application windows for tree pack delivery each year.
  • The British Bee Charity offers ongoing grants for beekeeping equipment and resources as part of the Bees4Schools initiative.

Tackling plastic waste

In the last 15 years, consumption of bottled water has doubled. Along with other soft drinks, this means 13 billion plastic bottles are now used in the UK every year. Despite recycling efforts, plastic bottles make up one third of all plastic pollution in the sea, and there are now more than 159 plastic bottles for every mile of beach in the UK.

The DfE has committed to eradicating single use plastics by 2025.

Encouraging children to carry a reusable bottle, and making it easy for them to refill by providing drinking water fountains, can have a big impact.

Funding your water fountain:

  • The Drinking Fountain Association provides grants for fountains for schools once they pay a £50 membership fee.
  • Look out for local grants
  • Ask local businesses if they will sponsor your fountain
  • Run a crowdfunding campaign or fundraising event.

Cut water wastage

In the DfE’s Buying for Schools blog, Laura Walton (water efficiency education and awareness lead) noted that by 2050 there could be water shortages across the UK because we do not have the infrastructure to store water from the wetter winters to support the drier summers. She argues that using water more efficiently now will embed behaviours that will reduce waste and bills.

Research from the NGO Waterwise suggests that up to 3,100 litres of water can be saved every day in every school. A leaky toilet can cost £100 per year and a small 3mm diameter stream from one running cold tap can waste 330,000 litres per year. Stopping this could mean an annual saving of £580.

Addressing water use involves a long-term commitment, combined with quick wins. So make sure your water meters are being read and encourage staff to highlight any issues with your caretaking team, sharing the information on cost-saving benefits. Look at the opportunities for rainwater harvesting and water butts. Appoint someone to champion water efficiency in your school. Hold a water assembly with your pupils and involve them in raising awareness by writing about the topic.

Become a water only school

Schools are uniquely placed to provide an environment where the healthy and most affordable choice is the easy one. Many primary schools are introducing Water Only policies, promoting water and milk (or milk equivalents) as the only drinks available, to reinforce the healthy eating messages taught in lessons. Some schools also ensure that water and milk are the only drinks on offer at events.

Water Only toolkits for schools in London are available from the GLA (email They include templates for parent letters, presentations, posters, social media, cards and certificates, as well as Water Only stickers for reusable bottles. In the north west, the public health charity Food Active has also produced a Water Only toolkit.

Case study: Charlton Manor Primary school

Charlton Manor Primary school in Greenwich became a water only school because many drinks brought in by students contained unnecessary sugar. The school is focused on helping children to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviours such as cooking and being physically active. Ensuring the children drink plenty of water was an obvious additional priority.

To begin, staff taught children about the importance of hydration and how not drinking enough water can make it difficult to concentrate and play. Children were asked to bring in their own bottles to refill at school. During the day staff reminded children to drink water and refill their bottles, with easy access to water fountains.

A big behavioural shift was needed around lunchtimes and it was made clear to parents that they only needed to send in a packed lunch and that the drink would be supplied by the school. The school has seen a positive shift in children’s behaviours towards water and hopefully by modelling these behaviours at school they will be adopted more at home.


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