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

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. This a summary of lessons for councils.

  • Dr Jane Hindley, Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Essex
  • Mr Ben Plummer, Climate Emergency Officer, Colchester Borough Council

Introduction: Working with children and primary schools in order to "reach beyond the choir"

A key challenge councils face in working towards net zero and a more sustainable society is how to "reach beyond the choir" of committed environmentalists to engage and raise awareness among broad sections of residents. This project showed that supporting primary schools is an effective way to achieve this. Because they are pre-constituted communities of staff, children and families, engaging primary schools is a way to reach residents of diverse ages, genders, ethnic, class and occupational backgrounds in different localities. 

What are primary schools currently doing to embed environmental education and action?

The project showed that a few primary schools have fully embedded environmental education and action, others have embedded some initiatives, and some are doing very little. The key reasons for this variation are that environmental education is not a statutory requirement in England, is not integrated into the national curriculum, Ofsted criteria or teacher training, and schools receive little support from trusts and the LEA. As a result, in a context where they are already over-stretched, schools often lack incentives, capacity and resources to deliver environmental education and action.

How can councils engage and support environmental education and action in primary schools?

General steps

  • Include explicit responsibility for engaging schools in relevant officers' responsibilities and where relevant, ensure LEAs have explicit policies for environmental education
  • Set up a website to publicise services for schools, local events, case studies, ecological education providers, and funding opportunities  
  • Organise an annual green day for primary schools across the borough/county
  • Consider ways to include and prioritise schools in retrofitting initiatives
  • Review charging schools as businesses for waste and recycling collections
  • Encourage councillors to use locality budgets to support schools' environmental initiatives

Targeted interventions for primary schools with weak environmental education and action

The project findings suggest that schools in this category are unlikely to access existing resources due to lack of capacity, interest, and resources. Such schools need sustained support to raise awareness and build agency and capacity. Councils can play an important role by organising and/or securing funding for carefully structured collaborative initiatives that provide such support and fun. There are numerous ways initiatives can be designed, but the findings suggest:

  • the effectiveness of a whole school, experiential learning, "action-drives beliefs" approach
  • the importance of involving local stakeholders in order to build networks of support (eg local environmental education providers, councillors, and university students and staff)
  • estimated costs (covering materials, co-ordination and delivering sessions) of £10,000-£12,000.

Children and young people are residents! What else can councils do to engage them?

Finally, the project shows that children are very concerned about the climate and environment and very enthusiastic about participating in outdoor pro-environmental activities, which have considerable behavioural and well-being benefits. Given this level of concern and enthusiasm, there is considerable scope for councils to consult and involve children and young people in wider decision-making and pro-environmental activities, eg engaging with school councils, setting up youth councils and weekend/after school volunteering activities.