Colchester Borough Council and the University of Essex: Go Green Schools project

The Go Green Schools project documented the extent to which primary schools in Colchester have embedded environmental education and action into their ethos, practices and operations.

What was the challenge?

The challenge was to raise knowledge and awareness and promote climate and pro-environmental action among a broad cross-section of residents. It was to "reach beyond the choir" of environmental organisations and concerned residents, with whom Colchester Borough Council (CBC) already has strong networks. Focusing on primary schools was one way to achieve this. As pre-constituted communities of children, staff, and families, focusing on schools was a means to reach residents of different ages, genders, class, ethnic and occupational backgrounds.

The Council has facilitated collaboration with some primary schools on specific CBC projects such as the woodland and biodiversity, active travel, and air pollution / clean air projects, as well as offering forest school type sessions in parks, and litter picking sessions. But there were significant gaps in knowledge about what most primary schools were actually doing, the challenges and constraints they face, and how the CBC team could provide support as part of the Council's commitment to climate and environmental action in the borough.

What was the solution?

The Go Green Schools project sought to address these gaps in knowledge and identify concrete ways that CBC could support primary schools in the future. A whole school approach was adopted which sought to document:

  • what primary schools are currently doing to embed environmental learning in the curriculum, promote biodiversity and recycling, and reduce their emissions by adopting measures relating to sustainable food, transport, and energy
  • resources and support currently available to schools
  • constraints and challenges schools face, and how some have overcome these
  • concrete measures the Council could adopt to enable schools to enhance their environmental action and education in the future, especially schools that have done little to implement environmental initiatives.

The first step was to identify existing CBC contacts and carry out a preliminary review of the websites of primary schools in the borough. The aim was to obtain a broad understanding of schools' engagement with environmental action and education and establish a baseline for selecting schools to participate in the project. The main phase of the project then had two complementary strands.

The first strand involved visits to five primary schools to observe school buildings and grounds and carry out in-depth interviews with heads and/or green leads. The five schools were selected on the basis that they appeared to have either fully or partially integrated environmental education and actions. Visits lasted between one and a half and two hours and the interviews addressed the themes outlined above.

The second strand of the project involved collaborative action research with one primary school that had done little to implement environmental education or actions. The aim of this strand was to pilot a methodology for supporting schools in this position in order to gain deeper understanding of their constraints and ascertain ways the Council could offer support in future.

After meeting the head and green lead to agree the collaboration, an audit of the school's food, transport, curriculum, biodiversity, energy and waste was carried out. This audit involved interviews with the green lead, the site and catering managers; two short meetings and a survey with teachers; as well as walking the school grounds with different members of staff to discuss potential spaces for enhancing habitat, plus a biodiversity survey. The curriculum survey had a low response rate. A travel survey was also circulates to parents, but this was disrupted due to unforeseen circumstances at the school.

This audit showed that the school had:

  • strong policies related to sustainable food and eco-cleaning materials, and performed very well on active travel
  • a considerable number of solar panels, a new energy efficient boiler, and some highly insulated new buildings, but there was potential for further solar and insulation measures, which would require significant capital expenditure
  • weak recycling policies (except food)
  • low levels of biodiversity in the grounds, but great potential for enhancing habitat.
  • except for Year 4, where gardening was linked to a Key Stage 2 topic, little attention to climate/ ecological education in the formal or informal curriculum.

In the main phase with the pilot school, the Council prioritised activities that addressed the gaps found in the initial audit. They worked closely with the green lead and organised a programme of activities aimed at enhancing habitat for biodiversity, improving children's ecological literacy, and raising awareness among staff about the benefits for children's well-being and learning. The programme devised included sessions by both CBC colleagues (e.g. ranger-led bug-hunts, air pollution demonstration) and University colleagues (e.g. marine life demonstrations, biodiversity survey). There were also sessions from local providers, Together We Grow CIC (TWG) and the Essex Wildlife Trust and local councillors were invited to key events in order to create networks that could support the school after the project ended (see Appendix 1 for full list of activities).

While the whole school approach is evident in the audit process, it was also embedded in the design and delivery of the programme of activities. Where possible half or full days were held and involved as many teachers and children as possible by delivering a specific session to several classes on a rota basis throughout the day (see Appendix 1). The centrepiece of the first phase were two Green Days held in July 2021, where there were parallel activities and the green lead organised teachers internally to provide complementary activities with their classes (e.g. eco-artwork, solar experiments). In the second phase of the programme (over the autumn and winter), sessions agreed with the new head and green lead were specifically oriented to involving children in projects to enhance the school grounds (e.g. planting for pollinators, tree-planting, bird/bat box workshops).

Finally, it is important to stress that the open, flexible way the methodology was sequenced from audit to activities enabled us to adapt interventions to the specificities of the pilot school (and COVID-19) while gaining broader insights on how CBC could support other schools where environmental education and action has been a low priority. Because of the broader challenges facing the pilot school, informal feedback and observations rather than written evaluations was primarily relied on. The team observed levels of children's engagement with the different activities, obtained regular informal feedback from the green lead, and from the new head after he took up post in September 2021. They also received more ad hoc informal feedback from class teachers, and from TWG and EWT colleagues (who have considerable experience and expertise in delivering ecological education). At the end of the project, the head and green lead provided written evaluations.

The team want to extend thanks to the heads and green leads interviewed for their candid responses to interviews, to allow the viewing buildings and grounds, and for their generosity in making time. Thanks also go to everyone at the pilot school for participating in the project, especially the green lead and the new head who took over part way through.

What are your top three lessons learned?

Lesson 1: There is great variation in environmental awareness, action, and education among primary schools in the borough

Schools can be classified into three types:

  • schools with an outstanding environmental performance, which have fully integrated environmental action and education into school identity and operations (e.g. solar panels, forest school, school garden, recycling, pond, meat-free days, and an active eco-council)
  • schools that have embedded some initiatives (e.g. meat-free days, school garden), but face significant constraints in fully embedding environmental action and education
  • schools that have undertaken occasional, ad hoc initiatives, but lack a consistent approach.

Schools in the latter group may be facing broader challenges, although further research is required on this. This was certainly the case with the pilot school which at the start of the project was facing serious financial, leadership and other challenges.

The overarching cause of this variation is the fact that there is no statutory requirement for primary schools in England (in contrast to Scotland and Wales) to provide environmental education and little support for investing in carbon-reduction measures. Environmental topics are not core to the national curriculum or Ofsted inspection criteria. Moreover, the heads interviewed reported that neither Education Trusts nor the Local Education Authority had policies on environmental education and action. As a result, primary schools are not allocated a ring-fenced budget, lack capacity, and have little external support or incentives to integrate environmental education and action. In this regard, the following points are important to note:

  • Most primary heads and teachers are over-stretched and pressed to deliver the core national curriculum, and this has been exacerbated by COVID-19.
  • Most primary teachers do not have expertise in delivering environmental education, and it has not been part of their teacher-training. There are numerous high quality environmental teaching materials available online, but most teachers do not have time or incentives to access, select and use these. However, several heads / green leads were using the Eco-Schools framework and found it very useful.
  • School visits underscored the potential for emissions reductions through energy generation and saving measures. Most were built in the 1970s and had considerable roof-space available for solar panels, some poorly insulated buildings, and space for ground-source heat-pumps. However, school budgets for buildings and grounds improvements are very constrained and most heads and school business managers do not have time to identify and apply for additional funding for energy and emissions reduction measures. 
  • Where schools have partially or fully integrated environmental education, most are buying in specialist services (e.g. forest school and gardening sessions from not-for-profits or self-employed instructors). In these cases, heads use funds from the SEN, sports, and other parts of the core budget to pay for services. However, this type of cross-funding is difficult for schools that are undersubscribed.
  • In the case of the two schools that had fully integrated environmental education and action, the role of the heads was key. Both had fully realised the benefits in terms of saving money, children's wellbeing and school recruitment and identity. Interestingly, neither had a strong background or commitment to environmental education or action before taking up their current post. Rather both had seized relevant opportunities to obtain funding / resources in a pragmatic way and realised that "it made good sense".

Lesson 2: Engaging schools that have done little to embed environmental education and action is a complex, but rewarding, process that takes time, resources and flexibility

While the initial plan was to work with two pilot schools, in the context of COVID-19 it proved difficult to recruit a second school. As it turned out, working with one dual entry school was much more appropriate for the scope of the project. This is partly because the pilot school was experiencing considerable challenges in the early phases of the project due to COVID-19 and other factors which led to delays. But it is also because although calculating costs of materials and delivering sessions was straightforward, the time needed for liaison, communication, and decision making, not only with the school but also with other stakeholders involved in the project, was underestimated.

The fact that project funding covered materials, buy-in sessions, and co-ordination time, was crucial to the success of the collaboration with the pilot school. Staff capacity and the school budget were both over-stretched and the school was not in a position to pay for materials or sessions. Moreover, although the designated green lead was very committed, she was part-time and in the early phases of the project did not have ring-fenced time allocated for her role. The constraints in the school's capacity meant the team had to revise expectations and plans in three key areas. 

  • First, they had to modify their initial plans for co-production in programme design and decision-making, as school staff had little time for regular meetings, workshops or talks and the School Council and PTA were not meeting. The decision to focus activities on enhancing both children's ecological literacy and biodiversity in the school grounds, underpinned by the action drives beliefs principle, provided a successful alternative strategy for engaging the whole school in co-production.
  • Second, they established a clear division of labour: the project coordinators were responsible for designing the programme of activities and liaising with external collaborators and the green lead did the internal liaison within the school, organising class-teachers about timings of sessions. This proved very effective.
  • Third, they revised the time-scale of the project to ensure regular whole day sessions over a year rather than more frequent sessions over three or six months. This pace ensured continuity in support and proved much more appropriate for embedding environmental awareness and obtaining support from class teachers.

Lesson 3: Children are residents and there is considerable scope for Councils to develop initiatives that specifically involve children and young people

  • All headteachers and green leads interviewed reported that children are very concerned about the climate/ environment and enjoy environmental and outdoor learning. They also stressed the benefits in terms of children's health, well-being and behaviour. 
  • Interview findings were corroborated by a recent survey at the pilot school and the children's responses to the project activities. 89 per cent of children answered yes to the question "do you care about the environment, 8 per cent maybe, and just 2 per cent responded no. They showed great enthusiasm for the activities and visibly enjoyed, for example, touching crabs and sea-weed creatures at the marine life demonstration and barrowing compost during gardening sessions. Moreover, the children generally seemed unconcerned about the weather and seemed to relish planting trees on a cold December day as much as hunting bugs in a local wood in July or building bat and bird-boxes indoors. They also seemed genuinely proud of their work in the school grounds. As the green lead stressed in her feedback: "On numerous occasions children have wanted to show me the plants or trees growing and discuss their involvement in it”.

The levels of children's enthusiasm and interest underscore the importance of councils not only supporting schools in embedding environmental action and education, but also in consulting and involving children and young people in wider decision-making and pro-environmental activities. Such initiatives might include, for example, engaging with school councils or eco-councils, setting up locality-wide youth climate / sustainability councils and weekend or after-school volunteering.

Project impact

What have the outcomes of the project been so far (e.g. development of a mapping tool to understand emissions per area)?

1. The Go Green Schools project has generated insights, knowledge, and understanding about the constraints and challenges primary schools face in embedding environmental education and actions and the type of support they would welcome from CBC and other local stakeholders. This solid base of understanding will enable the CBC team to expand their work with primary schools and devise a useful set of resources and initiatives (see below). This knowledge and understanding acquired is also shared with other Councils in a short summary of insights.

2. The project has had a significant impact at the pilot school and enabled the school to expand its educational offer at a time when it was facing considerable challenges. It has raised environmental awareness and ecological literacy among children, strengthened the role of the green lead and increased staff understanding about the benefits of outdoor environmental education both to children and to the school as a whole. Activities carried out with the staff, children and TWG during the project have enhanced the attractiveness of the school grounds for the staff and children and have both enriched and created new habitat for biodiversity. Significantly, the new head who took over half-way through the project has embraced the ethos of the project and is keen to ensure that environmental education is embedded in school policies.

3. Finally, the project enabled us to pilot a whole school action research methodology, underpinned by an experiential learning and action-drives-beliefs approach to behaviour and organisational change. The pilot demonstrated the effectiveness of this methodology for engaging schools that have little experience of implementing or sustaining environmental education and action. In his feedback, the pilot school head specifically commended this model of support and engagement.

How will these outcomes be sustained?

1. The CBC team has already taken some steps to increase support for schools and aims to develop further policies to engage young people in future. These include:

  • A new website listing resources that CBC can offer schools as well as links to local environmental education-providers and online resources.
  • Mr Plummer is currently promoting the Second Essex Schools Green Day (July 6th) with the aim of engaging more schools. He has organised free resources from local businesses and organisations (e.g. East of England Co-op and Poplar Nurseries) and the CBC team will provide support on the day in order to foster closer links.
  • The team will present the project findings at the next meeting of CBC's Sustainability Panel and suggest further ways the Council and members can increase support to schools (e.g. by revising recycling policy and using locality budgets for school environmental projects).

2. The project has strengthened the role and capacity of the green lead at the pilot school. She now has allocated time, and experience of organising successful events and activities, and more support from the head and teachers. As she also stressed in feedback, the project has also enabled her to widen networks with local stakeholders and her knowledge of available resources. She now has capacity to take a more pro-active role in leading environmental activities and actions at the school. Currently, for example, she is planning the school's activities for the next Essex Green Day in July 2022 and to organise a coherent recycling system at the school.

3. As co-ordinators the team were acutely aware of the importance of ensuring on-going support for the pilot school once the LGA funded project finished. This was a key reason for commissioning gardening sessions from TWG and inviting local councillors to attend the Green Days. As a result of these links, and the clear needs of the children and the school, TWG and a local councillor have committed to a long-term collaboration with the school to further develop environmental education and action. The councillor has provided funds from his locality budget for TWG to install a new vegetable garden; and TWG will deliver sessions one morning a week until July, while seeking funding for the next school year. Dr Hindley will also continue her action research at the pilot school in collaboration with the head and green lead to ensure continuity while initiatives become embedded and the school further consolidates capacity and expertise.

4. In order to further develop the methodology piloted during this project, Dr Hindley will seek further funding to continue work with the pilot school and/or carry out a similar action research with another primary and/or secondary schools in the borough. She will also disseminate the methodology in relevant academic and/or policy forums and by writing an academic journal article.

What is the anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions savings)?

This project had no direct, immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Rather it is part of CBC's longer-term strategy to raise environmental awareness and knowledge and to promote emissions reductions by residents and organisations across the borough. The emphasis on enabling the pilot school to enact environmental action through the activities provided built awareness, capacity and agency to act on environmental issues including emissions reductions.

How has this project evolved your approach to net zero?

The project showed that "reaching beyond the choir' to encourage environmental action and behaviour change requires sustained engagement and a commitment of time and resources. It also underscored the importance of engaging children and young people and showed the effectiveness of the "actions-drive-beliefs" approach to behaviour and organisational change.

More specifically, the CBC team has definitely realised the benefits of working with schools and (as discussed above) has already expanded support it will provide. The project also illuminated the benefits of collaboration between the CBC team and University researchers (see below). The project demonstrated the complexity of co-ordinating initiatives involving several stakeholders, and the importance of patience and understanding about the specific organisational constraints facing partners at different points of a project. 

Who will benefit from your project (please consider benefits to other parts of your organisations and your community)?

Children at the pilot school directly benefitted from the outdoor activities and Green Days funded by the project. They were consistently enthusiastic and visibly enjoyed the sessions. Moreover, as the head and several teachers emphasised, the sessions were especially valuable given the high proportion of children from socio-economically deprived households, many of whom live in flats. As one teacher commented after a Friday planting session: "The children loved it. Some of these children will go home and they won't go outdoors until they come back to school on Monday".

Other beneficiaries in the local community include:

  • other primary schools, who will benefit from more support from CBC in the future
  • TWG CIC, who will be delivering outdoor education at the pilot school.

The Go Green Schools project has shown the mutual benefits of collaboration between the CBC sustainability team and UoE researchers. For the CBC team, it has illuminated the relevance of University colleagues' expertise for furthering the Council's Net Zero and sustainability goals. For UoE researchers, it has shown the positive benefits of collaborating with CBC partners on projects with a tangible local impact, which is important for anyone concerned about the climate and ecological crisis.

The project also enabled Dr Hindley to strengthen internal networks with UoE researchers from different disciplines who contributed to the project design and activities. It has thereby created a solid foundation for further interdisciplinary collaborations on sustainability teaching, as well as knowledge transfer and research projects.

Partnership development

Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project

Discussions with wider CBC & UoE colleagues were very useful in the project design phase. The NZIP workshops were helpful for establishing goals and expectations, thereafter, regular meetings, email updates, and clear divisions of labour between the two co-ordinators were key to the partnership, especially given COVID-19 related delays and challenges. Meetings ensured the team were able to share knowledge, skills and experience, were both fully informed of progress, and could provide mutual support when faced with setbacks. Bimonthly meetings with the NZIP mentor were also valuable to reflect on and benchmark progress, and made the planned CBC-UoE project committee unnecessary.

How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term?

The positive experience of the Go Green Schools project is one factor that has contributed to strengthening CBC-UoE climate related partnerships over the last year. The newly revised CBC-UoE Memorandum of Understanding now specifies local climate-related research as an area of collaboration, for example. Additionally, Mr Plummer has established stronger links with the University's Research and Enterprise Office. He recently co-organised two ESRC Impact Acceleration workshops with the University's Knowledge Transfer team, which resulted in two new partnership projects addressing CBC climate challenges. Given the increased funding available for impact and sustainability projects, the team expect further partnerships in the future. Finally, Dr Hindley and Mr Plummer's partnership has facilitated new collaborations on sustainability teaching: two groups on Dr Hindley's final year Community Engagement module are partnered by CBC colleagues and Dr Hindley plans to set up student placements with the CBC team. 

Lessons for councils

A full summary of lessons for councils, including how they can engage and support environmental education and action in schools, can be found via the link below.

Colchester Borough Council and the University of Essex: Go Green Schools project – summary of lessons for councils

Further information

Email contacts from both partner organisations:

Ben Plummer (Climate Emergency Officer, Colchester Borough Council) [email protected]

Dr Jane Hindley (Senior Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Essex) [email protected]

Appendix 1: Summary of activities with pilot school

Preliminary Meetings

  • November / December 2020: contact school, meeting with head & green lead, and agreement of collaboration
  • (February-April: obtain ethical approval from UoE.)

Preliminary Audit Phase

March-April 2021

  • Informal meetings & discussion between co-ordinator & green lead
  • Preliminary visit to assess possible biodiversity initiatives & activities in the school grounds

May 2021

  • Interviews with School Site Manager & Catering Manager
  • Presentation of project aims to teachers at staff meeting and discussion of preliminary ideas for activities and actions
  • Presentation of project ethics to teachers at staff meeting,
  • Online survey of teachers regarding knowledge, skills, possible training and curriculum

Go Green Activities Phase 1

June 9th: Marine Life Demonstration am (UoE led)

  • Years 4,5,6 (6 classes)

July 8th: School Green Day

  • Marine Life Demonstrations am UoE-led (Key Stage 1: 6 classes)
  • Bug Hunt in Ghost Wood , CBC Ranger-led (Key Stage 2: 4 classes)
  • Bug hunt in school grounds EWT-led (Key stage 1: x 5 classes)
  • Planting for pollinators TWG-led (Years 3 & 4: 4 classes)
  • (Teacher-led environmental learning sessions all classes).

July 15th: School Green Day:

  • TWG gardening (Key stage 1: 6 classes)
  • Zorb Ball Air Pollution Demonstration CBC Air Quality Project-led (Year 6 + open at playtimes)
  • Marine Life, Plastics and Recycling, UoE led am (Key stage 2: 6 classes)
  • Bikeability feedback session, CBC-led (2 x year 4 classes)

August 16th: Biodiversity Audit part 1 (UoE researchers)

September 3rd: Biodiversity Audit part 2 (UoE researchers)

Go Green Activities Phase 2

September: Initial contact & meetings with new head & green lead and local stakeholders (TWG & County Councillor) to agree project continuation & future sustainability.

October 22nd: Litter Picking (CBC led)

  • Years 3 & 4 (3 classes)

November 5th: Planting for Pollinators Day (TWG led)

  • Bulbs and perennials planting in school grounds
  • Nursery, Reception, Year 2 classes (4 classes)

November 12th: Planting for Pollinators Day (TWG-led)

  • Reception, Years 3, 3/4 & 4 (3 classes)

November 19th: Building Bird and Batboxes Workshop

  •  Year 6 (2 classes)

November 26th: Bird & Batbox Varnishing and Art Workshop

  • Year 6 (2 classes).
  • (Installed in school grounds February 4th 2022)

December 2021: Tree-planting in local green space (CBC-led)

  • Collaboration with CBC Tree & Biodiversity Project & TWG
  • Years 5 & 6 (4 classes)

January 13th: Meeting with head & green lead, TWG & local councillor to agree handover of project from late March

February 11th: Tree-planting & Fence-building by School Playground

  • 7 x 3-yr birch trees (to create shade for children + habitat for biodiversity)
  • Years 4 & 6 Volunteer Groups

February 18th: Clearing Rubbish & Pruning Neglected Fruit Tree Area

  • With assistance from two Year 6 volunteers.

March 11th: Planting Boundary Hedge for New School Vegetable Garden (TWG-led)

  • Reception, Years 1, 1-2, & 2 classes.

March 25th: Pruning & Rubbish Clearing by Playground

  • Small group volunteers

April-May: Handover to Together We Grow to construct school vegetable garden

(Dr HIndley + UoE volunteers to continue with Friday afternoon sessions)