In line with the UK Government’s aim of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Department for Education published the Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy (2022). [1] The strategy aims to reduce direct and indirect carbon emissions from education and care buildings, driving the education sector forward in meeting net-zero targets. Phil Reynolds, Chief Executive Officer of PLR Advisory shares with us how these targets are difficult to achieve with academy trust finances and outlines changes that need to be made so that academies can become more sustainable.

The cost of living is proving a significant challenge for all of us personally and with an energy cap increase on the way in October it really does feel like the worst is to come. We are not alone in facing this problem, schools are facing it too.

Budgeting for energy costs is a challenge right now and assumptions used for increases could be the difference between a balanced budget or not. The energy bill challenge is causing the climate change agenda to hurtle towards schools at break-neck speed.

Why do schools need to implement sustainability strategies?

We are all guilty of leaving monitors and lights on at work after we head home for the day. Recent data has also shown that schools consume 56% of their energy when either closed (during weekends and holidays) or outside of core hours. On average, if energy usage in schools is better managed and monitored, energy savings between 5-20% can be made.[2] How can schools encourage staff to “switch off” and treat the school as if it were their home? This mindset will need to change moving forward and not just due to the impact of the current crisis.

Generation Z will soon be the key stakeholders for schools, and they care deeply about climate change. Therefore, they are making lifestyle changes and looking to purchase from businesses that show they are tackling the world’s carbon footprint. The question is, is your school demonstrating this enough? What are your plans? How your school is tackling climate change will be a significant factor for stakeholders moving forward – not just grades, university places and new facilities.

The government has set aims for the country to reach net-zero targets by 2030. Recent data has shown the UK are more likely to achieve carbon-neutral status in 2050 rather than 2030, so schools should start to expect a stronger push from the Department for Education (DfE) on the climate change agenda sooner rather than later.

Implementing school carbon-neutral plans is going to be the real challenge. From a cost perspective and a culture one as schools need to change their attitudes towards climate change to really commit to carbon-neutral plans.

Implementing alternative energy options

Placing solar panels on school roofs is not cheap, it is a sustainable energy option and has long-term benefits, but they are expensive to install. It would take a substantial chunk out of the budget, which some would argue is better spent on educational resources as that is more likely to benefit the school and students right now. Therein lies the culture challenge. Staff and parents are more concerned with the present nature of the school, not the future and what it’s contributing to the planet. Staff and parents alike want the money to make an impact now.

Funding a significant project, such as solar panels, is complicated. Schools, particularly academies, cannot borrow money. Therefore, any outlay will have to be immediate. The DfE need to help with alternative methods if they plan to push the climate change agenda. It is even more frustrating when Further Education establishments are allowed to borrow.

How do schools fund green changes?

The current Condition Improvement Funding for academies tends to be awarded for significant projects which endanger pupils, for example, fire safety, roofs, or boilers. Could more points be awarded if projects demonstrate energy efficiency benefits though, as this would help the DfE towards achieving their sustainability goals?

Perhaps schools should be instructing any capital project managers to “go green” and provide an energy-efficient solution. Then they could achieve the smaller easy wins internally, as all the green changes add up eventually to creating a more sustainable school. Small wins, such as reducing paper usage helps schools meet sustainability aims and by focussing on these smaller wins internally, the capital project managers can focus on the bigger projects.

Conclusions

Schools are engrained in thinking about the here and now, this thinking is driven from the top. 3-to-5-year budgets must be produced based on funding information only provided for the next 2 years at most. So how can you look more than 5 years ahead when considering significant outlays? How can schools encourage staff to be concerned about 20 years from now if to fund solar panels the curriculum budgets need to be slashed?

Schools with a clear vision and purpose alongside their delivery will achieve some success. If you do not have them then now is the time to visit this.

But schools can only do so much on the cultural side. Financially they are going to need some help along the way – over to you DfE.

[1] Department for Education (2022), Sustainability and climate change Strategy
[2] Sustainable Schools, Understanding your energy usage in your school building

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In line with the UK Government's aim of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Department for Education published the Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy (2022). Phil Reynolds, Chief Executive Officer of PLR Advisory shares with us how the sustainability targets outlined in the strategy are difficult to achieve with academy trust finances and outlines changes that need to be made so that academies can become more sustainable.

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