Making schools green

Thousands of contemporary statistical studies from all parts of the world are conveying an overwhelmingly consistent message – the general population is increasingly concerned about declining environmental quality and sustainability.  This trend is strongest among school-aged children and their parents.

In a 2021 survey conducted by the Governance Institute in Australia among 550 board members and senior executives, climate change (together with fallout from COVID-19 and economic instability) ranked as the top responses to the question “What are the three main issues you believe will have the most impact on society and, therefore, your organisation by 2025?”.

It is important to note that this survey targeted business rather than education.  In contrast to the survey results, many school boards and leaders are yet to appreciate the full significance of this trend for their school. Nonetheless, as a general rule, parents increasingly want schools that practise environmental sustainability and promote care for the environment. 

Prioritising renewable energy, installing roof-top solar panels, constructing buildings with biologically green roofs, reducing waste, implementing recycling, using stored rainwater, green cleaning, planting local indigenous trees and shrubs, designing classrooms with natural passive ventilation, and so on, are all attractive factors in the eyes of many parents who are exploring schools for their children.  

An example of a 'green school' - United World College of South-East Asia (UWCSEA), East Campus.

It seems that many parents (as a highly significant component of the wider population) feel that if our society doesn’t take consequential action urgently, then future generations – including their own children – will be left to deal with the devastating consequences of our inaction.

School leaders and boards thus have the opportunity to make a significant impact on the future of our planet through the school’s environmental priorities and their implementation.  As climate change and environmental degradation become increasingly pressing issues, many would argue there is a moral imperative for schools to consider and hopefully prioritise environmental sustainability as a core component their decision-making processes.  When schools implement sustainable practices, they become role models that both reduce own carbon footprint and inspire future generations to become environmental stewards.

When I refer to “sustainability”, my background as a geographer demands that I use the word in the strict sense – to use a resource sustainably means it is managed in such a way that the resource can be used in perpetuity.  Sustainability is arguably the perfect ideal for humans to exercise environmental stewardship of our planet.

Environmental sustainability should be a priority for school boards and leaders for several reasons:

1.    Environmental sustainability benefits the students educationally.

The goal of every school’s board should be to provide students with a top-quality education (in whatever way this is defined by the mission and vision statements).  However, education is not restricted to the confines of the classroom and the lesson plans that derive from the syllabus.  Modelling sustainable practices in a school can not only inspire students to adopt these same practices in their own lives, but can become a ‘living textbook’ to illustrate, exemplify and enhance studies in subjects such as Science, Geography, Mathematics and even Economics and Business Studies.

2.    Environmental sustainability can enhance student and staff health.

Environmental sustainability isn’t only good for the planet – it also benefits our health. By reducing pollution, removing toxic substances and promoting sustainable practices, a healthier environment is created for students and staff.  This can lead to lower rates of respiratory illness, allergies, and other health problems.

3.    Environmental sustainability is financially beneficial.

Implementing sustainable practices can also save a school money in the long run (even though some initial, short-term investment may be required).  For example, switching to energy-efficient lighting and appliances can reduce energy bills.  Installing water-saving fixtures can reduce water bills.  Reducing waste can save on disposal costs. These and other savings can be reinvested in the school to improve educational programs and facilities.

4.    Environmental sustainability expands community engagement.

When a school promotes environmental sustainability, it almost inevitably leads to engaging with the community in important conversations about the future of the surrounding region. This can in turn lead to greater community involvement in school programs and events, which then can help build stronger relationships between the school and its community in multiple practical ways that enhance opportunities for the students.

A helpful conceptual framework for approaching, organising and implementing environmental sustainability in schools is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The SDGs highlight the mutual interdependence of environmental, social and economic sustainability and the ways in which they rely on each other for success. 

To summarise, the SDGs are a set of 17 goals established by the United Nations in 2015 to create a globally sustainable future. These goals cover a range of issues, from poverty reduction to climate action, and they provide a framework for governments, organisations and individuals to work towards a better world.

School boards have an important (and arguably unique) role to play in achieving the SDGs, particularly those related to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all (Goal 4) and developing sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11). By incorporating environmental sustainability into a board’s decision-making process, school boards can help achieve both of these goals within the wider, integrated framework of all 17 SDGs.

If environmental sustainability is so important for schools, why do many school boards underestimate its importance?  I suggest there are five possible reasons:

1.    Denial of the importance of environmental sustainability

Some board members may be opposed to environmental sustainability on ideological grounds, especially when a discussion on sustainability becomes conflated with politically contentious debates on topics such as human-induced climate change or elevating poorer people out of their financial poverty.

2.    Lack of awareness

Some school boards may simply not be aware of the potential significant impact their decisions can have on the environment.  They may not have either the knowledge or resources to implement sustainable practices.

3.    Short-term thinking

School boards often prioritise immediate financial concerns over long-term sustainability.  They may not see the benefits of investing in environmentally sustainable initiatives if they don’t see an immediate or short-term return on investment.

4.    Perception of environmental sustainability as a secondary concern

School boards may view sustainability as a secondary concern, believing that their primary focus should be on academic achievement and student outcomes within the ethical ethos of the school.

5.    Resistance to change

Some school boards may be inherently conservative and thus resistant to change in general (on any issue), or else sceptical of the value of environmental sustainability initiatives specifically. Such board members may believe that the cost and effort of implementing environmentally sustainable practices outweigh the benefits.

Notwithstanding these five factors, and given the positive impact schools can have in shaping our collective and individual futures, what can school leaders and the board do to promote environmental sustainability?  

Here are five ideas to get started:

1.    Conduct an environmental audit.

Start by conducting an environmental audit of the school. This will help the board and the entire school community identify areas where sustainability practices can be improved.  This audit can include energy and water usage, waste management practices, recycling opportunities and more. The results of the audit can be used as the foundation to create a sustainability plan for the school.

2.    Establish sustainability goals.

Using information acquired during the environmental audit and with reference to the SDGs, the school board and management leadership can establish relevant goals and measurable targets for reducing waste, energy consumption, and carbon emissions. These goals can be incorporated into school policies, used as a scaffold to guide decision-making, and provide the basis of strategic KPIs.

3.    Educate students and staff.

Educate students and staff about the importance of environmental sustainability.  Lessons that incorporate the concept and practice of sustainability can be incorporated into the curriculum, and relevant, practical training can be provided for staff. The school can also create awareness campaigns to encourage students and staff to adopt sustainable practices in their daily lives.

4.    Implement sustainable practices.

There are many sustainable practices that schools can implement, from installing solar panels to reducing single-use plastics.  Other strategies might include installing energy-efficient lighting and appliances, using low-flow water fixtures, and composting food waste. Schools can also reduce waste by using reusable plates and utensils in the cafeteria, and by providing recycling bins throughout the school.  By adopting these and other practices which promote sustainability, schools can reduce their environmental impact and set an example for the wider community. 

5.    Work in partnership with the surrounding community.

Schools can also encourage community involvement in sustainability efforts. Community partnerships can include working with local businesses to reduce waste, collaborating with community organisations on sustainability initiatives such as community clean-up events, promoting sustainable transport options, and inviting community members to participate in sustainability events at the school.

Environmental sustainability is emerging as an essential consideration for school boards in today’s world. By making environmental sustainability a priority in schools, boards and school leaders can educate students, promote health, reduce costs, engage the surrounding community, and help protect the planet for future generations in accord with the UN SDGs.

I encourage school boards, leaders and educators to give genuine consideration to the expanding implications of environmental sustainability for their schools, not only for today but with a clear view to the decades and generations to come.

-Dr Stephen Codrington   

Send us an e-mail at [email protected] if you would like to explore ways to enhance your school’s environmental sustainability such as workshops for the staff or board, conducting an audit of curricula, or getting more information on ways to apply the SDGs to your school.

Advice on this and other aspects of effective leadership and school governance is also provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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