Make your school greener

Investing in eco initiatives may not seem like a priority when budgets are tight but, says Jane Hughes, it could pay off in more ways than one

If working in education means you care about young people, then helping to create a better environment for future generations should be high on your agenda. Yet when schools are cash-strapped and staff face burgeoning workloads, taking the environmental initiative is often seen as a luxury. However, even a few simple measures can lower your energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint, while more radical projects – such as the solar power installations and pollution screening living walls profiled here – can bring countless benefits.

Energy and water are a major part of a school’s environmental impact and non-staff costs, but according to the DfE more than 20% of energy is currently being wasted. Adopting good housekeeping rules and implementing conservation measures, it suggests, can save ten per cent on fuel bills and halve water usage. Moreover, getting pupils to buy into the idea of using resources carefully – through programmes such as Eco-Schools – will also pay dividends.

In addition, the government funded, not-for-profit organisation Salix Finance offers interest-free loans for a range of energy-efficiency improvements, and has supported hundreds of schools over the past few years. For schools that are reluctant to take on additional debt, there are a growing number of community and crowdfunding options for financing a greener environment.

Switching to solar

The green credentials of solar power are clear, but the cost of installing the solar photovoltaic (PV) panels needed to convert the sun’s energy into electricity is substantial. Over the past decade, however, an increasing number of schools have benefited from funding initiatives that provide cheap, solar-generated electricity with no upfront costs.

The most common option is provided by not-for-profit cooperatives, whose members want to invest in renewable energy to deliver an environmental impact, as well as a financial return through green electricity sales.

The Brighton Energy Co-op (BEC), for instance, was set up ten years ago, following a grassroots model established in Denmark and Germany where local green investors fund renewable energy installations on public sites. The BEC has developed a ‘rent a roof’ model, whereby the installation of PV panels at a hosting site is paid for by its members. Not only can schools and other public buildings potentially make money by renting their roofs in this way, they also pay less for their electricity.

A typical school will use about 60% of the energy generated on its site, says BEC director Will Cottrell, and will pay around a third less than standard charges for the energy. Indeed, a pilot project at the Portslade Aldridge Community Academy has saved the school £5,800 since it was installed in 2016, says Cottrell, and the BEC is now installing PV panels on several schools in the Brighton and Hove area. It’s also exploring how to fund further school installations through crowdfunding.

Nationally, the Schools’ Energy Co-operative (SEC) specialises in installing community-funded solar panel systems at schools free-of charge and has so far completed work at 72 sites in England, with more in the pipeline. That’s enough energy to power about 700 typical UK homes, with a correspondingly huge reduction in the carbon footprint. The solar installations have been funded by more than £2.9 million raised from the SEC’s 715 members (both individual investors and member schools, who receive any profit made). After 20 to 25 years, the SEC donates the PV system to the school, allowing it to generate its own energy for free.

‘Our model means that schools avoid taking on debt to fund the installation of PV panels, but can still benefit from energy price discounts of 25% to 30% and reduce their carbon footprint,’ says SEC volunteer chair Mike Smyth. ‘It’s all down to the collaboration and support of local people who want to see their neighbourhood school generating clean, green energy. A typical primary school could save around £1,000 a year on electricity bills.’

Until now, such initiatives have been supported by the feed-in tariff (FiT) – a payment from the electricity companies to the energy generator to promote renewable electricity. The SEC has repaid the cost of installation by using the FiT and the charge to the school for electricity usage. The government is now ending the FiT but, says Mike Smyth, it’s still possible to provide free installation for schools with largish roofs that are metal, south-facing or flat, and there may be ways the SEC can work with other schools too.

Another source of help is provided by the community benefit society Solar for Schools (SfS), which offers two options. The first involves SfS funding the upfront installation and management costs of solar systems through crowdfunding (it has already raised nearly £3 million this way). The second option is for the school to source its own finance and own the solar panel system outright, with SfS acting as project and maintenance manager.

Screening out pollution

Air pollution is becoming a public health emergency and children are particularly vulnerable, with repeated exposure to toxic air linked to asthma, diabetes and lung development issues. With many UK schools sited near busy roads, more than four in ten primary school pupils are breathing in air that breaches WHO pollution guidelines. In London, almost every school breaches the guidelines, according to DEFRA.

That’s prompted some radical action. Some schools are tackling the gas-guzzling school run by imposing car-free zones around their front gates. Others are literally turning their boundaries green by planting rows of trees or installing evergreen hedges and climbing plants to form a protective barrier. Such ‘green screens’ or ‘living walls’ can halve pollution levels by filtering and absorbing harmful pollutants, including carbon dioxide. Transport for London provides grants of tens of thousands of pounds to help schools install such screens.

Living wall supplier ANS Global (based at Aldingbourne Nurseries in Chichester) has launched a guide and competition to encourage schools to consider the benefits of green screens. ‘Living walls use plants to create breathable and fresh air, as well as suppressing dust and reducing noise pollution,’ says ANS MD Richard Silcock. ‘They also support biodiversity and local wildlife, and provide an interactive learning tool for children. Research has shown that just one square metre of vegetation can provide enough oxygen for a person for a year, which demonstrates the true power of plants in our environment.’

Save money, save the planet

  • Using existing heating and lighting controls efficiently saves money and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 40%.
  • Reducing the temperature by one degree centigrade (to a DfE-recommended 18 degrees) can save around five to ten per cent on heating bills. Operating heating systems for an hour less each day will save a similar amount again.
  • Switching old fluorescent lighting to LED lighting can cut electricity costs by up to 70%.
  • Low-flow taps, cistern dams and other conservation measures can reduce water consumption by more than 50%.
  • A dripping tap wastes up to 1,000 gallons a week.
  • Laptops consume around 85% less electricity than desktop computers.

Case studies

‘Our living wall breathed new life into our playground’

St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Chiswick lies close to a major six-lane road. Air quality was so bad that the headteacher reduced playtimes due to the noticeable effect on pupil health. When the school was identified as one of the 50 most polluted in the capital, parents decided to act. In 2018, they formed the ‘Chiswick Oasis’ project to crowdfund for a living wall, winning support from celebrities such as Jeremy Paxman, Claudia Winkleman and Emma Thompson, as well as local businesses. The campaign raised more than £90,000 and received a further £32,000 from the Mayor of London’s Crowdfund London programme.

Created by ANS Global and officially opened by London mayor Sadiq Khan, the 126m-long living wall features more than 12,000 plants with air-purifying qualities, many of which are indigenous to the locality. ‘We realised the power that plants have in cleaning the air and bringing the rarely used playground space back to life,’ says parent Andrea Carnevali. ‘We are not only transforming one of the most polluted schools in London into one of the greenest, but we’re also creating a model for other schools to be inspired by.’

The wall has been designed to require minimal maintenance and to thrive in the long term. ANS Global has also provided training to teachers and parents about how it works and what to do to help it thrive. The Chiswick Oasis project has also tackled indoor air quality by adding more plants, painting the school’s ground floor in air-purifying paint and installing air purifiers. As well as launching a ‘No Car Friday’ initiative, the school plans to create an edible vegetable garden. Crowdfunding efforts are continuing, with hopes of extending the living wall further.

‘Our solar panels have saved us money on bills’

Glenleigh Park Primary Academy in sunny Bexhill-on-Sea has one of the largest community-owned solar panel systems of any primary school in the UK. Its 150kW system was installed on its rooftops in 2014 as a flagship launch for the Schools’ Energy Co-op.

‘We have a huge roof as our building was originally intended to be a Year 7 block for a secondary school,’ says business manager Gaydree Wrigley. ‘We didn’t pay anything for the installation and we pay a fixed rate for our solar energy, with any excess going back to the grid. It has definitely saved us money on bills, though it’s difficult to be precise about how much as our pupil numbers have doubled over the same period, meaning we now pay for more energy to power lighting and computers.’

‘We’re encouraging the children to think about living sustainably’

In 2019, Perivale Primary School in Ealing, West London, became the 50th school to have a solar panel system installed through the Schools’ Energy Co-op. It was the tenth school in Ealing to work with the SEC in three years. This was largely due to the efforts of local sustainability group Ealing Transition, which helps Ealing Council find suitable schools, supports each school in completing the paperwork, and works with the SEC to offer parents and residents the chance to invest in the scheme. Ealing Council leader Julian Bell is a big fan of the scheme. ‘We have a climate crisis to deal with and every sector needs to support a rapid decrease in carbon emissions – this is a great way for schools to be part of that,’ he says.

For Perivale’s headteacher Audrey Dale, the opportunity to generate clean, green energy ‘fitted perfectly’ with the ethos of the school. ‘The project has helped us think more carefully about how we use energy, and now we’re taking steps to become even more energy efficient. It’s great for the school community to see how green technology works – and we hope this will encourage the children to think about how to live more sustainably in the future.’


Schools’ Energy Co-operative
Brighton Energy Coop
Salix Finance; 020 3102 6903