A mission to decarbonise schools

Image: St Ralph Sherwin Catholic Multi Academy Trust at their Eco-Garden Launch.

A new £10 million partnership between Green Future Investments and Let’s Go Zero – the campaign for all schools to be zero carbon by 2030 – will bring advice to individual schools, while also unlocking finance at scale from the public and private sectors. Alex Green, head of Let’s Go Zero and Derek Waterman from Green Future Investments, explain what this means for schools

The UK’s crumbling schools are damaging our children’s education – and, by driving up carbon emissions, putting all our futures in greater danger. Their poor state is one reason schools spend collectively over £2 million a year on energy and generate over a third of all public sector annual CO2 emissions.

There’s no quick fix for a problem this big: according to research commissioned by Teach the Future, roughly £23.4 billion is needed to get all schools in England to net zero. Upgrades required include better insulation and ventilation, as well as new, modern heating systems. Schools are eager to act, driven by their students’ interest in climate issues, but many lack the knowledge and resources to do so.

Supporting those schools is at the heart of a new £10 million partnership between Green Future Investments Ltd (GFIL) and Let’s Go Zero, the campaign for all schools to be zero carbon by 2030. This collaboration will bring advice to individual schools, while also unlocking finance at scale from the public and private sectors.
Let’s Go Zero started in November 2020, a campaign bringing together a coalition of environmental organisations already working with schools, to bring their knowledge and expertise together and support schools to decarbonise.

Schools that sign up to Let’s Go Zero commit to being on a journey to zero carbon by 2030 and to date more than 2,200 schools are part of Let’s Go Zero reaching more than 1 million students and 170,000 staff. They are given guidance on various ‘action pillars’ including energy, waste, travel, nature, water, procurement, and food, and access to webinars and resources provided by the Let’s Go Zero coalition.

Let’s Go Zero coalition members include specialists in all of these areas, including Global Action Plan which has a free to use, Schools Climate Action Planner and other resources, WWF, Fairtrade, EcoSchools, who are currently developing a schools’ carbon footprinting tool, Soil Association, Sustrans, Carbon Trust, The Tree Council, and WRAP (an organisation campaigning on waste reduction).

This month (July) we have announced a new partnership with Green Future Investments Ltd which will enable Let’s Go Zero to expand its support for schools in a very personal and hands-on way – with 30 climate action advisors around England working with schools directly on helping them progress their decarbonisation plans.

Our work designing the expanded Let’s Go Zero project has confirmed the scale of the challenge. One school energy expert told us they had visited 25 schools in the last six months – and that every one had a leaking roof. But the benefits of taking on this challenge are enormous, from driving down emissions to inspiring students and communities.

Major carbon savings

Action could deliver huge carbon savings. The TUC suggests a 10-year programme of school upgrades would save 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (not to mention creating 42,000 green jobs in construction and other sectors). Lower heating bills would also ease pressure on school budgets and schools built or refurbished to have heat-resistant features, such as shading, natural ventilation and other cooling features are also vital.

Action is also needed to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for students. In June the National Audit Office revealed that more than a third of school buildings are past their estimated design lifespan, and that specialists were carrying out urgent checks on almost 600 schools in England at risk of structural collapse because of crumbling concrete. Beyond this, classrooms that are draughty in the winter and sweltering in summer can distract students and disrupt lessons.

School upgrades are a chance to inspire young people with a real-world example of climate action. Students can see how lowering emissions brings immediate benefits, as well as safeguarding their future.

Barriers to progress

The benefits are significant, but so are the barriers to progress. Many schools lack the expertise and data to fully understand their current energy use, a crucial first step to taking action, and to implement change. A shortage of time, and the need to focus on other urgent priorities, is also a barrier to progress. Access to finance is also a major issue. Public funding opportunities cover only a fraction of the capital required, and schools struggle to access other forms of finance.

Our exciting initiative, focused on schools, colleges and nurseries in England, will have three elements.

Firstly, our network of Let’s Go Zero climate action advisors, located across nine regions of England, will give free, unbiased guidance to support key decision makers in schools to take action. They will help school leaders understand impact and progress from quick wins to more intensive actions – linking in to the latest Department for Education Climate Action Plan guidance and reporting requirements.

A second strand will be a long-term collaboration of experts to develop innovative financial solutions for school decarbonisation – bringing together key players in public and private finance to support increased retrofit funding opportunities.

The final element is a Zero Carbon Fund, supporting and scaling existing programmes and organisations working with schools to create even more impact and legacy.

Trailblazing projects are already showing what can be achieved by upgrading school buildings. One great example comes from Dalmain Primary School in Lewisham, London. There, major work took place in 2022 to upgrade the walls and roof of the school’s 1980s block– with new air ducts and an air source heat pump installed.  They also introduced greening measures such as mature 5m trees, rain gardens and rain planters to reduce flood risk and summer overheating. The school’s scheme has cut energy use by 60 per cent, and they have seen improvements in indoor air quality. Retrofit experts, RAFT, who carried out the work, also joined sessions with teachers and students to talk about how the work was tackling climate issues.
Stony Dean, a SEN school based in Buckinghamshire has also upgraded their school through applying for Salix funding. The school has managed to replace all lighting to LED and install 94 solar panels. This has led to a £300 monthly saving on lighting and a £2700 annual saving due to the solar panels after repaying the loan. This money can be fed back into the school to support learning and other initiatives.  

Academy Trusts across the UK are doing amazing work to take climate action and upgrade their schools. St Ralph Sherwin Catholic Multi Academy Trust, based in Derbyshire and the surrounding counties, are a mixture of 20 primary and five secondary schools. They have four strategic aims, one of which is: ‘To ensure that all activities of the trust reduce the negative impacts we are having on our environment and improve sustainability’. As part of this, one of the trust’s secondary schools is creating a Trust Orchard and are aiming to plant 8,000 trees – one for every student – a project which will not just be great for biodiversity, but also provide cool and shade for the students during hot summer months.

Unlocking funding

But success stories like this are still few and far between – which is where the Let’s Go Zero and GFIL collaboration comes in.

GFIL, a private company founded in 2021, provides funding to enable and accelerate climate positive innovation targeting net negative and net zero solutions.

GFIL’s decision to support Let’s Go Zero originated from an ambition of Brian Meredith, an entrepreneur, business leader and climate activist and grew from partnering with a single local independent school to upgrade their IT system. The engagement with the school subsequently sparked a desire to challenge the effectiveness of their inefficient, costly and unsustainable heating infrastructure.

GFIL began pilot work with Let’s Go Zero, exploring how to achieve impact on a national scale and were Impressed by the drive, commitment and impact Ashden Climate Solutions and the team can have.

Let’s Go Zero’s much expanded staff base means that there will be far more leverage to make sure that the project truly supports and inspires students, staff and school leaders.  

The results will be a game-changer in aligning the UK’s school infrastructure with progress towards net zero. Most importantly, it will give our young people the modern, sustainable school buildings they deserve.

For more information and to join Let’s Go Zero go to: letsgozero.org