Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Learning to live a greener life can start in the classroom, says new Ofsted report

Teaching sustainability in schools can help bring the significance of climate change to life and show children that that they each have an important part to play in helping to protect the environment.

Some schools are already leading the way in encouraging pupils to be green, but most have limited knowledge of sustainability and place little emphasis on teaching or promoting it, according to the latest report by Ofsted.

A new report published today by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), draws on the results of visits by inspectors to 41 primary and secondary schools.

The report, ‘Schools and sustainability: A climate for change’, assesses the extent to which those schools surveyed are making sustainability an integral part of school life and the progress they are making towards meeting the expectations of the Government’s National Framework for Sustainable Schools.

Sustainability has been described by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as ‘a way of thinking about our lives and work – including our education system – that doesn’t destroy the planet’. According to the report, some schools are already on the way to meeting the Government’s target for all schools to be sustainable by 2020 while others still have a long way to go.

Lessons on sustainable development were often characterised by good teaching. In the best lessons teachers used a range of imaginative activities so pupils could work individually and in groups in identifying, discussing and solving practical problems. In the best schools management responsibilities for sustainable development were clearly defined, well understood, and supported through appropriate training.

Primary schools were more successful than secondary schools in promoting sustainability, particularly in terms of using their grounds as a resource for learning. Schools also did better in developing pupils’ understanding of local rather than global issues on the subject.

Schools’ long-term contribution to sustainability was improved when managers were prepared to invest financial resources. Some schools were able to make their buildings more environmentally friendly for example, by installing sky lights in the roof, and solar water heating devices or automatic lighting in corridors and classrooms.

However, the large majority of schools inspected revealed a lack of awareness of sustainable development and of national and local government policies for the area. Very few teachers knew about the ‘Sustainable Schools’ programme and it was rarely a priority for development.

Sustainable development was also considered a peripheral issue, confined to extra curricular activities and involving only a minority of pupils. There was also inconsistent and uncoordinated promotion of the subject through National Curriculum subjects.

Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said:

“It’s really encouraging to see that some schools are making sustainability an integral part of school life. Teachers in the best lessons are using stimulating discussion and activities to engage pupils in issues relating to sustainable development.

The best schools are also investing in their own long-term sustainability and making their buildings more environmentally friendly. However, too often sustainability is a peripheral issue. More schools need to make sure it is key feature of their development plans.”

Several schools made sustainable development the focus of activities including themed assemblies or a high profile environment day where pupils were urged to conserve water and switch off lights. Others held events such as ‘walk to school Wednesday’, which discouraged the use of cars and promoted the environmental benefits of walking or cycling to school.

Some schools made use of extra-curricular activities to encourage pupils’ understanding of sustainable development through gardening and eco-clubs where pupils planted bulbs, looked after the school woodland or took an active part in community projects. Such activities engage and motivate pupils, raise self-esteem and develop a sense of worth. However, they were rarely coordinated or integrated within the formal curriculum.

One primary school set targets for reducing water and energy consumption, which saved £50 a week on electricity bills. In another school, a teacher showed pupils how to make football matches more environmentally friendly by using CFC-free fridges for drinks, providing free transport with tickets and using solar panels to generate electricity for ticket machines.

Another head teacher considered installing solar water heating devices to provide hot water in classrooms and small-scale turbines and photovoltaic cells to provide electricity for parts of the school. The pupils had investigated models of these renewable energy devices and showed a wider understanding than usual of their benefits, costs and limitations.

Ofsted’s recommendations:

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), the Training and Development Agency for Schools, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should:

  • give a higher priority to sustainable schools, supporting this through funding for central and local initiatives including staff training and development
  • ensure that the curriculum reflects the importance of learning about sustainability and that schools are supported in making it an integral part of their improvement plans
  • stress the importance of education for sustainability as part of a broad and balanced curriculum and disseminate good practice in this area.

Additionally, the DCSF should:

  • link learning about sustainable development more closely to ‘Building Schools for the Future’ and other capital investment, refurbishment and maintenance programmes.

Local authorities and their partners should:

  • develop a common vision for a sustainable community in which the contribution of schools is explicit and work together to implement it.

Schools should:

· Integrate sustainable development into their development plans and ensure that resources and training are available to support it

· identify a key person to manage and coordinate sustainable development within and outside the classroom

· give all pupils the opportunity to learn about and take an active part in promoting sustainability within the school and beyond, through membership of school councils, eco councils and other groups

· give all pupils the opportunity to put their understanding of local issues into a global context, so that they see how their decisions can have an impact on others now and in the future.


1. The report ‘Schools and sustainability: A Climate for Change?’ can be found on the Ofsted website

2. The survey was conducted during 2006/07 with visits to 26 primary and 16 secondary schools in 35 local authorities.

3. The report assesses the extent to which these schools teach their pupils about sustainability and the progress they are making towards meeting the expectations of the Government’s National Framework for Sustainable Schools.

3. The schools were selected in order to include a representative sample of large and small schools, in rural and urban settings across England.

4. The survey follows an earlier survey by Ofsted in 2003, which opened up the debate on education for sustainable development in schools in England

5. The National Framework focuses on ways in which sustainable development can be embedded into whole-school management practices and provides practical guidance to help schools work in a more sustainable way. It identifies three principles for schools to consider: care for oneself, care for each other, (across cultures, distance and time) and care for the environment (near and far).

6. It also introduces eight ‘doorways’ through which schools may choose to initiate or extend their activity about sustainable schools: food and drink; energy and water; travel and traffic; local well-being; and the global dimension

7. Sustainable development is linked formally to four statutory subjects: citizenship, geography, science, and design and technology.

8. Additional government investment is being made for new schools within the Building schools for the Future and the Academies programmes to ensure reduced requirements for energy and carbon energy generation. One of the aims of the Building schools for the Future programme is to involve young people in designing their own schools.

9. From 1 April 2007 a new single inspectorate for children and learners came into being. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) has the responsibility for the inspection of adult learning and training work formerly undertaken by the Adult Learning Inspectorate; the regulation and inspection of children's social care work formerly undertaken by the Commission for Social Care Inspection; the inspection of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service work formerly undertaken by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Court Administration; and the existing regulatory and inspection activities of Ofsted.

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