What does sustainability mean in schools? How can they take meaningful action on climate change? Emma Darcy reflects on her school’s journey towards carbon zero.

“You are never too small to make a difference.”

I suspect that most of us will be familiar with the quote above from Greta Thunberg and, of course, with the Swedish environmental activist herself who first learned about climate change when she was eight years old and vowed to change the world. Perhaps the quote feels very familiar now, but, over the past two years, I have reflected on those words more than ever as both the school and Multi Academy Trust that I work for has looked to address our own carbon footprint and the way that we educate our young people about the immediate and wider environment that they are growing up in.

I have been Director of Technology for Learning at Denbigh High School in Luton and the Chiltern Learning Trust for the past ten years. Mine is a highly varied role which covers everything from developing digital strategy across all sixteen of our schools, to practical classroom pedagogy and, most recently, the lightning-fast development of Artificial Intelligence. Like all trusts, we have a Development Plan, and one of our principles is, “Environmental and Resource Sustainability, Leading in Technology for Learning, Pupil Resilience and Preparation for a Changing World.” I confess that I initially felt the amalgamation of our digital strategy and sustainability strategy was an unusual choice, but I now fully appreciate that this pioneering decision has never been more needed and appropriate.

The challenge

As with many trusts, Chiltern Learning Trust is committed to being carbon zero by 2030 as part of our Let’s Go Zero pledge. That is a considerable challenge. As a Trust with 11,000 students and 1,200 staff we use the same amount of…

  • electricity each year as 1,100 UK households
  • gas each year as 700 UK households
  • heating oil each year as 90 UK households
  • and on average, for each of our students, we produce the equivalent weight of 250 bags of sugar in carbon, each year.

We want the culture of our Trust and schools to be reflective of our vision and values with environmental sustainability at the forefront of everything we do, in the way we use our buildings, the energy and services we consume, the way we work together as a community in and out of school and in the way we Denbigh High School pupils. teach and the curriculum content that our students learn. As a provider of Initial Teacher Training for new teachers and of professional development to existing teachers, we are ideally placed to support and guide future generations.

We can all do more now to contribute to the challenge of climate change but we also feel that, as educators, we are morally bound to this by teaching the next generation, who will benefit from our action and suffer the consequences of our inaction.

On the ground

I have hopefully encapsulated our moral purpose, but what does that actually look like on the ground and in our schools? In terms of Government guidance, we decided not to wait until 2025 when every school should have a Sustainability Lead and be delivering climate change education –instead, we have acted now. We will have our first sustainability strategy in place this term and we will make further investments in renewable technologies to support our schools to reduce their carbon footprint. Each school has a nominated Sustainability Lead in place and there are already lots of excellent initiatives happening in our schools to be greener and more environmentally friendly.

Just this week, I spoke to a group of school leaders from across the country who admitted that the scale of the challenge can often be what is most daunting. It is impossible to do everything at once and sometimes we become deflated by the tedious reality of ancient school boilers and radiators, rattling windows and staff who perhaps don’t turn off everything they should when they leave the building. Here, in schools, is where our most precious source of motivation and inspiration exists – in the form of our children.

How can tech help?

For the past nine years, Denbigh High School has been taking part in the national Apps For Good Programme which encourages students to use technology to solve real world problems. Last year, we were delighted to be asked to pilot the new ‘Innovate for Climate Change’ course which teaches fundamental digital skills alongside climate change education. An additional benefit was that our Year 7 students were able to use the course to tackle their own climate anxiety, a very real problem that exists in many of our young people who clearly understand the environmental challenges facing their generation but often feel powerless to act to address them. The course was so successful that one of our student teams was a finalist in the Apps For Good national showcase, won the category and went on to take part in the inaugural Bett Show Design4SDGs Challenge, taking their original app idea further and evolving it into a Trust-wide campaign to minimise the impact of ‘vampire devices’. Not only did the three students get to present on the main stage in the Bett Arena, they also won their category and are now developing the idea even more widely to have both a national and international impact.

It was this practical personification of, “You are never too small to make a difference,” that led us as a Trust to roll out the Apps For Good ‘Innovate for Climate Change’ course this year to all of our primary and secondary schools. I was astonished to see how enthusiastically our school staff grasped the mettle and adapted the course for delivery to children from Year 3 all the way through to Year 10. I was lucky enough to work with some of our schools directly and see the passion and proactivity that our young people employed to develop ideas covering everything from food waste to deforestation.

Denbigh High School pupils on stage at the Bett 2023 show.

Denbigh High School pupils on stage at the Bett 2023 show.

Climate change and Digital Innovation Summit

Many of the schools went on to enter the Apps For Good National Showcase, but we wanted to take this idea further as a Trust and, on Friday 28th April, we held our first Climate Change and Digital Innovation Summit (#CCADIS) in Luton. The purpose of #CCADIS was simple – to allow 5 Denbigh High School pupils on stage at the Bett 2023 show. our young people, regardless of their age, to present the app ideas and digital skills that they had developed through the Apps For Good course to a range of industry experts and, in the process, develop their confidence and public speaking skills.

What originally started life as a little event in the Denbigh High School sports hall quickly grew into a much larger occasion as we were inundated with support from technology companies such as BNY Mellon, DeepMind, EPAM Systems, GoCardless, Google, Innovation X, OVO, Sage, Raspberry Pi, Siemens, and TPXimpact. We were also overwhelmed with the collaboration from other schools and Multi Academy Trusts, all of whom were willing to give up a day of their time to come and speak to our children. We structured the day like a proper conference, with an opening keynote, a stands showcase and a panel session in the afternoon. The only difference with our panel session was that all the questions came from the young people themselves, and it was delightful to see our eight technology experts responding so honestly to the interrogation from the children! As one of our schools commented, “Such sage advice and wise words to so many of our students from a panel with great industry and life experience. Where else do you see this happening in such a genuine and open way? Truly amazing.”

We are already beginning to plan next year’s Climate Change and Digital Innovation Summit (and we are keen to hear from anyone who would like to work with us on this!). As a Trust, we often describe ourselves as a family of schools and this event really did bring everyone together – not just across our schools, but also across our four Trust Central Teams: Operations and Marketing; Standards and School Improvement; Finance, Personnel and Compliance; and Teaching School, Training and Professional Development.

Most importantly, it united everyone, schools and visitors alike, around our common theme. Climate change and sustainability are everyone’s responsibility and you really are never too small to make a difference.

Poster - High School Denbigh Design4SDGs Challenge. Beware of school vampires!!! Learn how to run a campaign in your school to ward off vampire devices!

Denbigh High School pupils' Design4SDGs Challenge poster.

References

1. OFSTED, School Inspection Handbook for Maintained Schools, Updated July 2022, Paragraph 212
2. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, 1956
3. Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M., “Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”, 1968.

Author

  • Emma Darcy

    Emma is director of technology for learning at ‘Edufuturists Secondary School of the Year’ and former EdTech Demonstrator School, Denbigh High School and the Chiltern Learning Trust. In 2021, she won the ‘Gold National Teaching Award’ for Digital Innovator of the Year and in 2023, a Global EdTech Award.
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