Life and work are full of decisions and choices every day; both large and small. Which is the best option or which represents best value for money? Is it the cheapest, the quickest, the largest, the smallest, the big brands or the ‘green’ option? With increasing numbers of choices available to schools now, and shrinking budgets, maybe the ‘green’ choices seem like an option too far? We may try to consider the green, or ethical or sustainable choice, but this can sometimes feel like a luxury we cannot justify or afford.
Balancing economic arguments with ecological considerations does not have to be a mutually exclusive choice. The idea that the green choice is the more expensive option is increasingly false nowadays. Sometimes (and increasingly often) the green choice can be the best choice and the green option is the same as the best value choice. This can be a purely economic decision, before you start to consider the additional benefits of eco‑choices; things like improved reputation for the school or enhancing a culture of caring.
The green community The Eco-Schools programme is a pupil-led, whole school approach; which is sometimes over-simplified to mean all the pupils. The whole school means every member of the school community is included and every decision incorporates ecological considerations. It’s more than an Eco-Club for the pupils or switching off the lights when you leave the classroom. In a great Eco-School, the ethos touches every aspect of school life; maths lessons analyse the data that the pupils have collected on the school’s energy consumption, catering and site managers sit as part of the pupil’s Eco-Committee and pupils present their carefully researched case for solar panels to the board of governors and bursars.
As managers of the programme we have brought in a number of changes to help schools with their purchasing decisions. We now partner with a number of green businesses. These companies are chosen to fit well with the Eco-Schools programme, our values and our aims. In addition to the economic and ecological benefits these partners can provide to schools, we work with them to ensure we maximise the learning opportunities too. Real life examples of businesses providing greener versions of everyday products are very powerful in bringing sustainability to life.
We also ask schools to submit their green procurement policy as a part of the Green Flag application process. We do not dictate what schools should buy or from whom, we simply ask them to consider what they buy and consider the alternatives. In awarding Green Flags we would never penalise schools for their buying choices, just as we would never penalise schools for the results on their Display Energy Certificate. But we are asking schools to at least consider the Eco-Schools ethos in their buying choices, it is all part of the learning process that sits at the heart of the programme. The overall sustainability of the school is in every decision you make, everything you do and everything you buy.
Rather than discussing the hypothetical, we’ll show how other schools have already changed the decisions they’ve made and demonstrate that the green option is often the best option for schools, from an economic and educational standpoint as well as an environmental. Ask yourself where large chunks for your school budget are currently being spent – electricity, heating, rubbish collections, water, resources that are wasted in school – and you’ll already start to see how more sustainable options could save you money.
Flicking the switch Thousands of schools take part in annual Switch-Off Fortnight campaigns; they are a great way to involve the whole school in an eco-project. But in addition to the educational benefits, simply switching off lights and appliances that aren’t being used can save serious amounts from school budgets. Schools have made over 20 per cent reductions in their energy usage through simple behaviour changes.
Many schools have teams of pupils who roam the corridors looking for lights left on; some teachers are even named‑and‑shamed in assemblies. A Sixth Form College have taken this a step further, the students of the Eco‑Committee have the power to take fines from departmental budgets if too much energy is wasted in their rooms.
Schools have also made significant savings through reducing the waste sent to landfill and diverting more to recycling. A Somerset school bought a bailer in order to facilitate paper recycling in the school. Although the initial cost of this bailer was funded from the estate bursar’s budget, this cost has now been repaid through money that was saved on landfill. Three years ago the school paid £15,000 annually to send waste to landfill, they now pay £3,500.
Another Eco-School has gone completely waste free following their ‘War on Waste’. Whereas previously over 90 per cent of the schools’ waste went to landfill, with the associated costs, now 90 per cent is recycled or composted and the remaining 10 per cent is incinerated to produce electricity.
Food for thought How involved are your pupils in the food they eat at school and how much of this food is wasted each day? At one of our Ambassador high schools the pupils have a food committee which regularly meets with the catering team to discuss everything food related. This committee has led to significant reductions in food waste through simple changes. For example thanks to the girls’ suggestions portions are smaller, salads come with dressings and some of the meals are less spicy. By regularly meeting with those who eat the food, the catering team can reduce food waste and therefore costs.
Embracing the Eco-Schools ethos is not something that is achieved overnight; we describe it as a journey. Of course there is always something extra everyone, or every school, could do. But the most important thing is that we all do something; even if we all just make one change to what we choose, or buy or do. 17,000 English schools are already registered as Eco-Schools, together we have a collective power to change, not just our own schools but the way English schools function in general.
Solar opportunities for schools More and more schools have already installed solar panels on their roofs, but with a range of providers, finance options and misconceptions it’s hard to know where to begin or even whether they would be right for your school.
Some local authorities and councils are already supporting schools in their solar installations, through investments or spend‑to‑save schemes. But even if your council is not actively pursuing solar opportunities in your area, there are a range of solar options available; it is usually possible to find one to suit your school. Some solutions involve upfront costs, others are funded entirely through the savings made, whilst others are crowd funded by your local community.
Government ministers are certainly getting behind solar panels for schools. The energy minister Greg Barker has been quoted as urging schools to install solar panels. Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, has described solar panels as a “sensible choice” for both economic and educational reasons.
When you start considering solar you’ll need to ask yourself some questions, seek advice and be prepared to bust some of the myths you may have heard in the past. For example, the energy is generated from daylight, not necessarily direct sunlight, so our variable English weather isn’t a problem and energy is still generated even on cloudy days. Even if you have considered solar in the past, it may be worth re-investigating as technologies and finances are improving all the time.
You’ll also want to ask yourself whether you want to simply generate energy for your needs, or whether you are hoping to feed the excess back into the National Grid. This decision may be dependent on the amount of available roof space you have, either way your panels will be generating energy through the weekends or holidays that may be above the needs of your school.
As well as generating energy, solar panels can generate income for your school, through the Government’s Feed-in-Tariff scheme. This income is guaranteed for 20 years, with the exact amount depending on the rate when you sign up. The income will either go to your school or to your solar panel provider, depending on what type of contract you sign up for. Schemes also vary in whether you rent the panels, rent out your roof or purchase the equipment yourself. Obviously different situations will suit different schools, but it is worth remembering that there are schemes available that are fully school and local authority compliant.
Minimise the risks If you are worried about the possible risks associated with installing panels you can choose to go with a provider who can minimise these risks. Some will only install panels if their calculations demonstrate over a certain amount of income generation over the life of the panels. These calculations can be checked and verified by external bodies such as the Carbon Trust. Finally, it’s never too early to start thinking about the educational benefits of a project such as solar panel. By picking a company that specialises in the educational sector you’ll have extra support such as educational resources or staff coming in to work with your pupils. Solar PV can truly be an example of a project with economic, educational and environmental benefits. Solar could be a case of the green choice being the best choice for your school.
Science Minister Chris Skidmore spoke at the BETT Show, reiterating the government's commitment to education technology and working with industry to create solutions that address some of the challenges in education.