Are schools doing enough to be environmentally friendly?
Alexia Ando, a Year 11 pupil, has taken time out from her studies to give us her point of view on this important question.
When I witness the many unused monitors in our school computer suites glaring their blue lights, I find myself envisioning a horrific montage of melting ice caps and pipes spewing out greenhouse gases. My initial hypothesis to answer the title was therefore an unequivocal “no-way Jose”. But you will see why in hindsight, this was a very misjudged way to assess the holistic impact of my school on the environment and also schools nationwide.
Here are a few key areas I have researched. To combat heat loss, many schools have installed heating control systems or invested in draught excluding strips. My school recycles and redistributes our old computing equipment and has a 1100Lt cardboard bin that is emptied once a week. 59,000 schools from 72 countries are part of the Eco-Schools programme which asks that they carry out a 7-step plan, including creating an environmental action plan and an eco-code for students to follow (1). Schools also often have wildlife areas, such as a wooded area or pond to increase biodiversity.
A survey carried out in 2019-20 and 2020-21 by the Green Schools project (2), revealed that out of the 3235 secondary students asked, only 2% said they knew nothing about climate change and the majority said they knew “quite a bit” or “lots”. This must be partially attributed to the inclusion of climate change and global warming in science and geography syllabi, as well as, other school-driven eco-initiatives that are embedded in PSHCE lessons and assemblies. However, as pointed out by the Geography teacher of Gryphon School, climate change is “too often limited to Geography and science lessons”. This explains why I hear a cacophony of criticism of burning fossil fuels from peers my age but yet most consume fast-fashion and eat food from unknown sources with little or no concern.
However, there has been an increase in the criticism from pupils at my school if someone buys from brands like SHEIN or Primark, or doesn’t have a reusable water bottle. Though “climate deniers” are few and far between, the research showed that only 1 in 10 pupils would take the opportunity to improve their impact on the environment (2). It can easily be argued that many young people are satisfied with appearing eco-friendly and buying the odd glass straw but it is not the lifestyle they will continue out of the public eye.
What is more, 10% of British children aged 5-16 are vegetarian, and 8% are vegan (3), with Gen Z currently being the most meat-free generation. Vegetarianism creates on average 59% fewer emissions than a normal diet (4) is followed by more than 3 million people in the UK. Many of my friends have or do take part in “Veganuary”. However, the debate rages as to whether this is always less carbon-intensive and whether the motivation is as much animal cruelty as climate action (5).
Still, the greatest limitation for most schools is finance. Schools have to spend their budget on repairs like leaking roofs rather than new insulation or renewable energy. Teach The Future estimates that the retrospective improvement cost for all existing schools to be made net-zero educational buildings is approximately £13.8 billion and to build a new premium Net Zero school costs £598.67 per m^2 (6). There are also many legal limitations: schools labelled as “academies” (79% of secondary schools ) cannot apply for the Salix School Energy Efficiency loan scheme which is essential for being able to fund the transition to a net-zero school (8, 9). Covid-19, though a short-term impact, has meant that windows must be left open, wasting a vast amount of energy. Schools must also have enthusiastic staff and pupils to drive improvements and the improvements when implemented must be maintained and supported.
It is much less painful to walk past the blaring computer screens in school following the research I have done. I still feel a gulp in my throat but I understand that the anxiety, on its own, is unproductive. Instead of dwelling on rising thermometers and panic, I am motivated by those who have acted, especially other young people my age, for example, Greta Thunberg. I equally admire all the teaching staff, uncredited students and volunteers who are doing everything they can to give back to our planet: it has after all given everything to us: it only seems fair.
Schools are doing as much as they can if they don’t want to sacrifice other expenses and stay financially afloat in the face of government austerity and other limitations, though of course, this varies from school to school. Within the reality of a money-oriented society and the fact that pupils need to be taught in heated buildings and write on paper, schools are making a valiant effort to introduce environmental measures.
However, to be as harsh as the uninhabitable conditions of our growing deserts and the destruction of towns in forest fires, it can also be argued that schools are not doing enough. In fact, nobody is doing enough until we all review our lifestyles and make sure that all our choices are pro-environment. Icebergs simply won’t stop melting just because we cannot comfortably afford to fund new schools.
I conclude we are only doing enough until we are uncomfortable: when we feel challenged by a new measure then real change has happened. As the world is so rapidly changing, we will have to get used to change sooner than we want to anyway.
(1) Seven Step Overview – Eco Schools (eco-schools.org.uk)
(2) Homepage | Green Schools Project
(3) More than 20 per cent of UK children already vegan or would like to be, survey finds | The Independent
(4) Men’s meat-heavy diets cause 40% more climate emissions than women’s, study finds | Meat | The Guardian
(7) Number of secondary academies as a percentage of all secondary schools in Peterborough | LG Inform (local.gov.uk)
(8) 5fa3e64a154cd64f971e37db_Net-Zero Costings.pdf (webflow.com)
(9) 5fa3e6c9c7b5ba00f21d19ca_CSR Representation.pdf (webflow.com)