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Back to School – Academy Trusts at forefront of zero carbon action for UK schools

Academy Trusts up and down the country are proving to be a formative part of the UK education sector’s response to climate change, says Let’s Go Zero, the nationwide school campaign which supports schools to be zero carbon by 2030.  

Schools from 389 Multi-Academy Trusts are now signed up to Let’s Go Zero with the largest trust in England signing up nearly 100 schools in one go.  

Let’s Go Zero are encouraging academies to join the campaign this academic year – following on from 95 that joined so far this year. More than 2,300 schools are signed up to the campaign in the UK.  

Alex Green, Head of Let’s Go Zero, says academies have the opportunity to be highly impactful in terms of climate action –  sharing learning between the trust schools quickly and efficiently, and trialling initiatives in one or two schools before rolling out to the rest of the Trust: “Multi-Academy Trusts can take advantage of the support of the resources and experience of each other very effectively and use that learning to replicate low carbon initiatives across all their schools.  

“They also have a huge demonstration effect – to students, teachers and the wider community – and can have a really positive impact on the local economy in terms of building contracts for installing renewable energy, retrofitting the schools to be more energy efficient, and sourcing as much of the schools’ equipment, food and resources locally as possible.” 

Academies joining Let’s Go Zero range from as small as five schools in a trust, such as The Learning Life Partnership, to the largest trust in England- United Learning Trust – that currently encompasses 94 schools and includes schools across the country from Carlisle to the South Coast.  

Leading the way in local climate response 

In 2019 the United Learning Trust created an ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2030 and made a commitment to have a positive impact on their local communities, on the national education system and on the wider world. United Learning have ensured their carbon neutral ambition is a high priority agenda for their Headteachers by presenting their research, data and plans, as well as sharing good practice from across the schools and beyond, at their termly Headteacher face-to-face meetings.  

Each school has a ‘Carbon Neutral Champion’ who is responsible for the day-to-day responsibility at school level, yet they also have a trust-wide team with representatives from each department including all Carbon Neutral Champions, who monitor progress to achieving goals and report regularly to the Executive Board. 

The United Learning Trust has taken steps to reduce its carbon emissions and engage the whole student and staff body. Actions include switching to a 100 per cent renewable electricity provider for all schools in the trust, running an energy saving week every January, and adapting their primary school curriculum to include a sustainability focus. They will be doing the same for their secondary school curriculum this year a as well as introducing one meat free day a week into every school and create a ‘green directory’ or ‘preferred supplies’ list for staff to use with the ambition to introduce a sustainability clause into all new procurement contracts from 2025. 

Bellevue Academy Trust, which manages 10 schools in London and Berkshire, has partnered with eEnergy to reduce their carbon footprint and work towards their net zero goal by 2030. They have switched to a 100 per cent renewable electricity tariff and with support from eEnergy, five of the Trust’s schools have now replaced their old, inefficient lights with new LED lighting and nine out of the ten schools in the Trust, now also have solar panels installed saving the Trust £1.5 milllion a year.  

Richard Crompton, Director of Operations at Bellevue said: “With some of the things we’ve done – we’ve had to invest to save. There is a danger out there that trusts don’t optimise the buying power of the educational institutions. We do need more collaboration between trusts.”  

Photo: Whitehall Park School in Islington, London, managed by Bellevue Place Education Trust, is one of the nine out of 10 schools in the Trust which is working towards the Let’s Go Zero goal of being zero carbon by 2030. Having solar energy saves the Trust £1.5m annually. 

The largest academy trust for primary schools, REAch2, which support 60 primary schools across England, have just started their journey on climate action and sustainability. They have created a six-point strategy which encompasses sustainability throughout the Trust – this includes looking into their policies, process and procurement, adding environmental impact into everything they do and buy and embedding sustainability into the culture of all their schools. They are also looking at reducing emissions from their school estate and improving their school grounds to support the curriculum as well as for improving biodiversity.  

Tim Culpin, REAch2 Sustainability Lead, said about their climate action journey: “I took up this post [less than a year ago] and have been overwhelmed by the support that I’ve received from people outside the Trust from different organisations and businesses who have a great deal of expertise and want to do the right thing. I feel really optimistic.” 

Culpin’s aim is to bring every school in the Trust along on this journey in a way that works for everyone – no matter if the school is in located in urban or rural settings. This approach needs to become an integral part of each school’s culture, not just as an Eco Club add-on for a select few, he insists. Every child must leave school with a clear awareness of the steps they can take to contribute positively to both people and the planet. 

Photo: St. Margaret’s Primary Academy in Lowestoft is part of the REAch2 Academy Trust. The school’s living wall of minibeasts is just one of many ways they foster biodiversity within the school environment. 

CEO of REAch2, Cathie Paine, echoes this sentiment, “In many of our schools, I’ve seen inspiring projects, awards and achievements, and genuine progress towards sustainability at every level. But it goes beyond that. To truly prioritise sustainability across our Trust, we need to ensure that what is achieved by schools already on this journey is attainable for all. Our commitment not only empowers our children but supports our staff in schools too as we’re providing teachers with needed knowledge and skills through valuable CPD opportunities.” 

Let’s Go Zero provides schools with support from the 11 Let’s Go Zero coalition members, which includes a range of NGOs working on environmental guidance for schools, including ready-made lesson plans and project ideas, to webinars and case studies, and the support is only growing. Competitions for schools to win funding for sustainability focused projects, run with IKEA and OVO Foundation, also offer schools the chance to involve their students in creative projects and win the funds to implement them.  

This new school year also sees a massive upscaling in the support Let’s Go Zero is offering to all schools, colleges and nurseries across England.  Let’s Go Zero will start providing climate action advisors in the East and West Midlands, with more to come in 2024. The advisors will provide unbiased guidance to school leaders to support climate action, taking schools through from quick wins to more intensive actions – helping schools link to the latest Department for Education guidance and reporting requirements, to supporting with resources and advice on technologies, finance and grants available to them.  A long-term collaboration with key players in public and private finance will also start, to develop innovative finance solutions for increased retrofit funding opportunities, and a Zero Carbon Fund, supporting and scaling existing programmes run by organisations working with schools to create even more impact and legacy.   

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

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