How to make sustainability a strategic priority for your school or trust

Help your school or trust do all it can to tackle climate change by embedding environmental sustainability into its vision, strategy and practice. Know how to get the ball rolling on sustainability, monitor your school or trust's practice, and ensure your whole school community has the chance to get involved.

Last reviewed on 14 December 2022
School types: All · School phases: All
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  1. Why your school or trust should act on sustainability now
  2. How to start the conversation about sustainability
  3. Find out how sustainable your current practice is 
  4. Put sustainability at the heart of your vision and values
  5. Turn your vision into a strategy
  6. Monitor progress

Why your school or trust should act on sustainability now

In April 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) published its strategy to improve sustainability in schools. While the DfE hasn't imposed any reporting requirements on schools yet, its strategy may ultimately have an impact on things like your curriculum, school premises and procurement processes. 

Be prepared for these future changes early on by embedding sustainability into your school or trust's practices. With rising costs and budgetary restraints, thinking carefully about your energy usage and how to raise climate awareness will no doubt also help you save money in the long run.

Don't worry if your board is only starting out on this - below you'll find a comprehensive guide on what you need to know and do to embed sustainability in your school or trust's practice.

How to start the conversation about sustainability

First of all, you need to get buy-in from your chair and your school or trust leader. This is essential for sustainability to become a strategic priority, as your chair and school/trust leader will determine whether you have the resources and capacity to go ahead. 

Start off the discussion at a board meeting by, for example, raising the issue under 'any other business'.  Providing a simple and clear report for your board (at least a week before your meeting) that puts you all on the same page will enable free and frank discussion. Be aware that the rest of your board may not share your urgency, as changing mindset takes time and patience. 

Find out how sustainable your current practice is 

Once your board, chair and school/trust leader agree that sustainability should be a strategic priority, the board needs to consider what your school/s are already doing on this front. 

Give your leaders plenty of time to prepare a report for your full board or sustainability committee. The report should cover:

What your school community thinks about sustainability

To do this, your leaders might: 

  • Run surveys to gather pupil, staff and parent voice (learn more about the role of governors in running surveys)
  • Ask pupils for their opinion through the student council
  • Run a parent forum event
  • Talk to governors (if you're a maintained school) and trustees and local governors (if you're a multi-academy trust) to find out what they think

Your leaders should gather views from as diverse a range of stakeholders as possible. This is because climate change and sustainability practices impact communities in different ways. For example:

  • Encouraging pupils to bring in locally sourced ingredients for a food technology class may not be inclusive of pupils whose families are struggling with finances
  • Asking pupils to walk or cycle to school could be exclusionary to pupils with particular disabilities or those living in certain areas

The climate impact of your school's/schools' operations 

It'll be up to your executive team or headteacher to audit your school estate to find out:

  • How much energy your school/s use and how efficiently 
  • Where the energy comes from (renewable or non-renewable sources) 
  • How much waste your school/s generate and whether it's recyclable
  • How much water your school/s use
  • The carbon footprint of your procurement decisions

Your leaders may need to hire external auditors to find these things out. For example:

  • Companies like Energy Sparks offer free virtual energy audits for all state-funded schools
  • Some local councils run schemes. For example, Bradford Council offers free energy audits and advice on energy efficiency to schools in its service level agreement
  • If you don't have the budget to employ professional auditors, there are free DIY energy audits (e.g. SchooliP tool) that your leaders can carry out. They may want to get pupils involved too

Please note that any mentions of commercial products does not constitute an endorsement by GovernorHub or The Key.

How sustainability features in the curriculum

This will help pupils become carbon-literate citizens who have the knowledge to tackle the climate crisis.

Ask your school or trust leaders questions like:

  • How does our curriculum currently link to climate change and sustainability?
  • How are you making sure that opportunities to engage with learning about climate change are accessible to all pupils?
  • What do you want pupils to know and be able to do as a result of learning about sustainability and climate change?

Your leaders could do a curriculum audit to find out to what extent sustainability is embedded in the curriculum. The charity Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) publishes a free whole-school audit tool (scroll down and click on the 'Where do we start?' tab under ‘Further information’. Then, download the resource in stage 3).

Put sustainability at the heart of your vision and values

Once you have a clear idea what your school or trust is already doing, get your full board and senior leaders together to discuss:

  • To what extent sustainability is embedded in your current vision and values
  • Whether you need to update your vision and values to reflect your drive for sustainability

Remember that you shouldn't treat sustainability as a bolt on. If you're serious about it, you and your leaders should make all major decisions with sustainability in mind. It therefore makes sense to set aside a proper chunk of time to talk about this - consider running an away day to discuss this and try to get everyone on the same page.

Examples of trusts that incorporate sustainability in their values

  • Northern Star Academies Trust's values include:
    • "Nurture: we promise that children will learn in a nurturing environment in which each child’s individuality is respected"
    • "Sustain: we promise to provide strong and steady leadership, and to encourage all children to live and learn in a sustainable way”
  • PRIME7 Multi Academy Trust has 7 core values, 3 of which directly link to sustainability:
    • “Respect: [...] our children take responsibility for their future and the future of others by respecting the world around them and promoting sustainability"
    • "Inspire: [...] they [our children] will be responsible citizens that model sustainable practices and behaviours to protect the natural world" 
    • "Community: [...] all stakeholders within our community will strive to prepare and empower individuals to become responsible for contributing to a sustainable future"

We've just refreshed our vision and values - do we need to do it again? 

Yes, you should.

Including sustainability in your vision and values will make sure that it ends up embedded in everything you do. Your vision describes what you aim to achieve in the next 3 to 5 years, so if sustainability is in your strategy, your vision and values will need to reflect this. 

Turn your vision into a strategy

Once you've agreed on your vision for sustainability, collaborate with your school or trust leaders to create a strategy with clear goals that will ultimately achieve that vision. 

We're working on a more detailed article on how to develop a strategy that realises your vision and values. We'll link to it here once it's done - click on 'Save for later' in the top-right corner to get an alert when it's published. 

An example of how a vision, strategy and goal might look like:
  • Vision: children will develop the knowledge and skills to be conscious citizens who prevent waste and contribute to a circular economy 
  • Overarching strategic aim: we will reduce the level of waste generated across our school/trust
  • Goal to help achieve that aim: we will phase out the use of single use plastics by 2024

Your headteacher or executive team will break down the strategic goals into further action plans and implement them at your school or across your trust. They should report back to your board on the progress they make. 

As a governor, you shouldn't get involved in implementing the plan, as your role is strategic and you should leave operational matters to your leaders. Your job is to monitor your school or trust's progress against the strategy and goals to make sure things are moving in the right direction.

Monitor progress

Decide how your board will monitor sustainability 

Depending on your board's structure, you might decide to: 

  • Embed the monitoring of sustainability into your board’s existing structures. For example, your curriculum committee could monitor how sustainability features in the curriculum, while the premises committee could ask questions about energy usage on your school site
  • Appoint a sustainability link governor or trustee to take a leading role in monitoring progress made towards the strategy and goals. This might mean:
    • Working with your school's/schools' sustainability lead/s
    • If you are on a local board of an academy, working with governance counterparts at other schools or the trust

Regardless of who on your board monitors this, remember, again, that sustainability shouldn't be a bolt on. Every single member of your board should be thinking about sustainability when doing their jobs.

Discuss progress towards your goals at board meetings

Ask your clerk to include progress on sustainability as a recurring item in full board meeting agendas. When discussing this item, remember to:

  • Refer back to your school or trust's vision and values, and ask if you're making sufficient progress towards these
  • Regularly revisit your strategy. Our understanding of sustainability and what we can do about it will evolve over time, so ask if the strategy continues to reflect the current situation. If not, you may need to work with your leaders to amend your strategy and/or goals 

Ask questions about sustainability 

The governor or committee responsible for sustainability (if you have one) can ask the following questions of your school or trust leaders on school visits or in meetings. Pick and choose the questions that are most appropriate for your context:

  • What progress is being made towards our goals? 
  • What impact is that progress having?
  • How do you know the progress is having a positive impact?
  • Have there been any negative or unintended consequences of our strategy?
  • How do we know that the actions we are taking are environmentally sustainable? 
  • Are staff being given enough time, training and resources to make progress towards these goals? How do you know?
  • How do our stakeholders feel about the rate of progress we are making?
  • How do we know that our approach is delivering the best value for money?

If an initiative hasn't worked out, ask:

  • What lessons have been learned? 
  • What can we do differently next time? 
  • What can we share with or learn from others?

If your school or trust has met a goal sooner than expected:

  • Were we being ambitious enough when we set this goal?
  • Where can we go from here?

As with everything else, remember to not take leaders' answers for granted. You'll need to go into your school to see the progress being made in real life and triangulate what you are hearing.

Consider pupil voice when monitoring progress for a different perspective and to hold your board accountable

Part of creating a generation of climate conscious individuals has to include feedback on current initiatives. One way of doing this is - as the Northern Star Academies Trust has done - to set up a board of pupils to provide the board of trustees with pupil voice.

The Next Generation Board of pupils updates trustees on progress being made in their schools and the challenges they're facing. By doing this at the start of every trustee board meeting, trustees can stay connected to their key stakeholders.

Read the full story about the Next Generation Board on The Hoot. 


Lizzie Oliver is the director of governance at Northern Star Academies Trust, a 9-school trust, with academies in North Yorkshire and Bradford. Lizzie has over 15 years of experience in qualitative research and analysis across the education and training sector. She has supported headteachers and governors in a wide range of communities and contexts.

Brendan Hollyer is vice-chair of governors at a primary school and an all-through special school. He's a national leader of governance and has worked as the director of conversions and governance for a multi-academy trust.

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