Thornhill Primary School in Cardiff

The action needed for low carbon classrooms

The government’s ten-year school rebuilding programme is a step towards creating low-carbon classrooms, but more investment and ambition is needed, writes Alex Green, schools programme manager at Ashden. In the meantime, there is a lot schools can do themselves to protect the planet and lower their bills

The government’s ten-year school rebuilding programme, announced this summer, is a step towards creating low-carbon classrooms for every child in the country. But it will only be effective with a much bigger injection of investment and ambition. Schools face a nervous wait for genuinely national action – but in the meantime, there is lots they can do themselves to protect the planet and lower their bills.
    
To launch the rebuilding programme, 50 projects, worth £1bn, have been promised in England, as well as £560m for school repairs and upgrades. Revealing these plans, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “This major new investment will make sure our schools and colleges are fit for the future, with better facilities and brand new buildings.”
    
But the scale of the challenge is huge. There are about 24,000 schools in England – so 50 projects will address just 0.2 per cent of the country’s crumbling school estate. If this 10-year plan is to achieve nationwide change, the chancellor will need to go far further when he lays out his full plans in the Autumn Spending Review.
What’s more, the first of the 50 planned projects will not begin until September 2021. With climate scientists warning of a pivotal decade to transform our societies, the clock is ticking.
    
Sixty per cent of UK school buildings were built before the mid seventies. So energy retrofits – improving energy efficiency in existing school buildings, thereby saving carbon emissions and ultimately fuel bills – is essential, rather than concentrating solely on new school builds. Seventy-two per cent of England’s school buildings are still expected to be in use in 2050.
    
A host of solutions can improve efficiency in new builds and existing buildings. With an enormous task ahead, the government will need to embrace a range of strategies in order to overhaul the school estate.
And a local level, schools should realise that upgrades or new building projects are a unique opportunity to work together with their local community – from small businesses to voluntary groups. A joined-up approach will bring massive benefits within and beyond the school gates.

Smart tech for retrofits

The case for retrofitting goes beyond fixing cold and draughty classrooms. Energy is the second largest budget item for schools after staffing, every pound spent sorting out leaky and energy-guzzling school buildings can be money invested into children’s learning. Retrofit solutions – such as improving insulation and ventilation, or investing in more efficient boilers – can dramatically lower bills and emissions.
    
The cost of inaction is enormous. In 2017, the National Audit Office estimated that the cost of dealing with major defects in UK schools would double between 2015-16 and 2020-21, as many buildings near the end of their useful lives.
    
But support for schools is available. For example, Salix Finance provides interest-free government funding to the public sector to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and lower energy bills. Salix was created in 2004 by the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, and has so far funded 18,780 projects – bringing schools annual savings of £203million.
    
In the capital, the Mayor of London’s retrofit accelerator promises to deliver participating schools an average saving of 15-25 per cent on school energy bills, access to interest-free loans, new equipment and lower maintenance costs, and access to approved service provider to do the work.
    
But what cutting edge solutions could drive a national retrofit effort in the years ahead? Many start with a smarter use of data, using new software and machine-learning to find inefficiencies in heating and cooling systems. A few simple fixes or improvements can deliver big savings.
    
One low tech but efficient solution, for new builds or retrofits, is passive design. This technique maximises the use of natural sources of heating, cooling and ventilation to create comfortable conditions inside buildings. It harnesses environmental conditions such as solar radiation and cool night air to control the indoor environment – cutting the need for gas and electricity.
    
A passive design-focused social housing project in Norwich won the 2019 Stirling Prize for architecture – proving that this approach isn’t just for luxury homes or offices. Schools in Wolverhampton and Cambridge have shown how effective it can be in an education setting.

Funding and support to go green

Sustainability initiatives frequently bring wider benefits beyond reduced emissions. In the case of schools these include lower fuel bills – but also the chance to create stronger links with local communities.

Oxfordshire’s Low Carbon Hub supports a huge range of carbon-cutting initiatives across the county, including many in schools. It recently helped West Witney Primary install 108 solar panels, enough to generate 28,820kWh of clean electricity every year.

This generation means that West Witney can meet approximately 18 per cent of its energy needs through the panels, as well as saving 11 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. The project is projected to save the school around £15,000 over the lifetime of the project by reducing their energy bills.

The work came at no cost to the school. However, it was supported by the hub’s Community Energy Fund share offer, which allowed local people to invest in green solutions in their own neighbourhoods.
    
The school’s commitment to going green also includes hosting a lively eco-club for pupils. With backing from Low Carbon Hub, Witney has demonstrate how infrastructure projects can be the centrepiece of broader sustainability effort.
    
The success of Low Carbon Hub shows the value of networking organisations in helping schools embrace sustainability solutions. Such organisations are well placed to provide advice, recommend contractors and help schools access funding. Lowering emissions can seem a daunting task – but schools don’t have to do it alone.

Unite for change

As well as looking to supportive organisations, schools can also benefit from tackling sustainability challenges together. This includes coming together to discuss common challenges and share solutions. LESS CO2, Ashden’s peer learning programme for low-carbon schools, connects local schools seeking to tackle energy use.

It is also vital that schools unite to call for change from the government, because the ambition shown so far just does not meet the challenge ahead. If the Government is serious about ‘building back better’ after coronavirus, not to mention the education of future generations, it must crank up its efforts and unlock greater investment.

That challenge has inspired the Let’s Go Zero 2030 Campaign, through which schools are making a public commitment to becoming zero carbon. Those taking part are demanding the government sets out a roadmap to making all schools zero carbon by 2030. On this crucial issue, headteachers, governors and students are leading the way.

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