Sustainability in England’s schools: evaluation of government approaches since 2004

By Yazmin Hall, Liverpool College


Hall, Y. (2021) Sustainability in England’s schools: evaluation of government approaches since 2004. Routes 1(3): 304-315.


This essay explores and evaluates governmental attitudes towards embedding sustainability into schools. Through analysing government’s provisions, and the subsequent actions made by non-governmental organisations and schools, I divide these attitudes into the contrasting categories: top-down vs bottom-up. Between 2004-2010 a top-down method was adopted by Government as they partnered with the Sustainable Development Commission. Support was largely given by the publication of the National Framework for Sustainable Schools in 2006. The end of the partnership, when the coalition Government formed in 2010, signalled their reform of the bottom-up approach which led to the growth of charities and alliances in the sector. To conclude, I reiterate the importance of this subject, highlight that the optimum strategy is a blend of the two approaches and offer potential methods to support this. 

1. Introduction

Sustainability is the ideology that contemporary demands should be met within their economic, social and environmental limitations, so the needs of future generations aren’t compromised (Brundtland, 1987) (Figure 1). The English formal education system is yet to achieve optimal sustainability; with many schools across the country failing to align themselves with the concept’s principles, despite growing concerns over anthropogenic environmental change. Ironically, these institutes simultaneously educate the youth in the short-term whilst impacting their future in the long run, from contributing to greenhouse gas emissions to producing an excess of waste, worth 185 double decker buses per day (Department of Education, 2012).  

In 2004, the Department of Education (DfE) entered into a partnership with the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), the advisory body on sustainability, independent of government. This milestone marked the commencement of a lengthy timeline of embedding sustainable practices into schools; filled with altercations, successes and challenges. This essay explores and evaluates the two governmental strategies dividing this timeline: a top-down approach vs. a bottom-up approach. 

Figure 1. Diagram representing the concept of sustainability (Concept Draw, nd).  

2. The top-down approach

The National Framework for Sustainable Schools, published in 2006, ignited the success of the seven-year partnership between the DfE and the SDC (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008). The framework was established as a guide to institutes who were looking to incorporate the concept into their structure. It was comprised of three main elements:

‘A Commitment to care’

The term sustainable development was simplified by the DfE as ‘care for oneself, care for each other and care for the environment’, which was arguably used as their tagline in the campaign to promote sustainable schools (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008). The message elicited a positive response from the educational community as it was ‘easy-to-understand; building on what they had already been doing whilst extending their horizons to the environment’ (Reynolds & Scott, 2011).

‘An Integrated Approach’

The framework encouraged schools to apply sustainable practices across their three-core architecture: ‘Curriculum’, ‘Campus’ and ‘Community’ (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008).

‘Sustainable school doorways’

Eight doorways were chosen (Figure 2). These acted as checkpoints which helped schools establish the concept of sustainability through the aforementioned three-core architecture.  

Figure 2. The Eight Doorways (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008).

The framework seemed successful. By 2008, 70% of schools in England had travel plans, 70% had obtained the healthy schools mark and 50% were registered with Eco-schools (Groundwork UK, 2009). More importantly, the approach adopted by the DfE was a success- a balance of support and liberty given to schools. By producing a national structure, all institutes adopted sustainable approaches formulaically, using the eight doorways, which enhanced a sense of unity across the country. However, the framework was flexible, allowing schools to prioritise aspects of sustainable development over others. Treating schools as individual units, by allowing them to design their own, unique sustainability plan, increased the engagement of educational professionals. A positive outcome is the learning opportunity that opens up to staff and students, as they are actively involved in the process, summarised by the Prime Minister’s words in 2004: “our students won’t just be told about sustainable development, they will see and work within it”. 

On the other hand, providing support to schools was equally important: it improved the likelihood of them seriously acknowledging the concept, knowing that the government encouraged it. Even though schools had liberty in applying sustainability, ultimately the approach taken by the government was top-down. Put simply, the encouragement/guidance of sustainable schools was sourced from a high authority (government) which then infiltrated down the social hierarchy, as modelled in Figure 3. 

Aligning with this model, government also provided financial support, such as the £50 million distributed between 2004-2006 to local authorities and schools in order to implement school travel plans, promoting walking, cycling and public transport (Department of Education and Skills, 2005). 

Figure 3. Diagram modelling the concept of a top-down and bottom-up approach, in the context of sustainability in education. Credit: Yazmin Hall (author)

However, a pattern of issues arose when schools across the country went under observation. For example, in 2008 Ofsted published ‘Schools and Sustainability’, a survey assessing the progress schools had made towards meeting the expectations of the National Framework. They stated that ‘work on sustainability tended to be uncoordinated, often confined to extra-curriculum. Therefore, its impact tended to be short-lived and limited to small groups of pupils’ (Ofsted, 2008). Evidently, despite the Framework encouraging schools to become sustainable, it did so without using a step-by-step structure, which led to problems including those stated by Ofsted. In addition, the implementation of sustainability into schools was not legislated by the Government, merely promoted. Thus, thousands of schools across the country did not adopt sustainable practices, despite a plethora of advisory publications circulating the educational community, including the National Framework.

Overall, the seven-year partnership between the DfE and the SDC was successful and led to an array of positive results, in addition to the Framework being published. Therefore, it came as a shock when the partnership came to a close in 2010 following the formation of the Coalition Government. 

3. A bottom-up approach

Immediately after the SDC was announced to close, Sustainability and Environmental Education group (SEEd) wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Michael Gove, urging Government to continue their support in the sustainable schools movement. Due to communal concerns, other voluntary umbrella groups representing the sector joined forces and signed the letter including WWF and UNESCO UK NC. The key quote from the response received was ‘Our approach to reform is based on the belief that schools perform better when they take responsibility for their own improvement. Sustainability is an important issue for schools but should not be centrally driven’ (Hill, 2010).

Subsequently in 2011, the Sustainable Schools Alliance (SSA) was launched, representing and bringing together a multitude of umbrella groups in the absence of central leadership. The NGO, non-governmental organisation, founded by SEEd aims to promote sustainable schools and provides a united, powerful voice to communicate with government. The alliance was endorsed by the DfE as it suited their reformed bottom-up approach (Figure 3). This meant local authorities, NGOs and schools self-organising and ‘taking responsibility for their own improvement’ (Ofsted, 2008).

How successful has this bottom-up approach been? The removal of government’s support is controversial: it triggered an array of debates and raised challenges in the sector. However, handing responsibility over to NGOs has been beneficial, with many of them growing in both size and importance. For example, the Eco-Schools programme which provides a step-by-step guide to become a sustainable institute is now used by 20,000 schools in England, according to Lee Wray-Davies (Beckingham, 2020). The scheme is broken down into seven steps each slightly modified depending on the branch of school: early years, primary or secondary. The National Framework was used as inspiration when devising the Eco-school strategy: in step three, the school prioritises three topics for development. Notably, these topics are similar to the eight doorways previously mentioned. (Figure 4.)

Figure 4. The ten topics which the Eco-school programme focuses on (Eco-Schools, 2020).  

However, the Eco-schools’ framework is more effective as has important features which the framework fails to include. Firstly, it ensures schools justify why they prioritise certain topics over others using an audit. Otherwise, schools may choose the easiest/cheapest options. Secondly, the programme encourages pupil involvement using the cross-curriculum method. This reduces issues which the National Framework had caused – referring back to Ofsted’s find of the progress being confined to ‘extra-curriculum’ (Ofsted, 2008). Lastly, schools can apply for the Green Flag Award after completing the seven steps: this represents their achievement and having a goal/reward to work towards boosts engagement and progress across the whole school. Overall, Eco-schools develop the essential balance, as previously discussed, between liberty and guidance. The action plan symbolises the freedom schools are given in embedding sustainability. Whereas the resources provided, assessments undertaken, and evidence required together improve the guidance given to schools. 

Figure 5. Diagram to summarise the seven steps of the Eco-Schools programme. (Eco-Schools, 2020)

Figure 6. Picture of the 100th local Clare school, St. Patrick’s Comprehensive, celebrating their Green Flag award. (The Clare Herald, 2014)

The Eco-school initiative is just one example of the multiple pathways schools can embark on to become sustainable. Others include: SEEd’s Sustainable School framework, WWF green ambassadors and the Green School Alliance. Even though these NGOs produce higher-quality guidance than the government and can enhance cohesion between schools and their local community, there are also negative issues surrounding them. For example, as they are charities and receive no government funding, NGOs often require schools to pay a small fee for enrolment or assessment. Whether schools are subscribed to one of these programmes or not, expenditure is still required for resources ranging from recycling bins to renewable energy as Government provide no subsidies. Having to pay to become sustainable, repels schools from the concept; despite them saving money in the long term. Furthermore, using NGOs and local authorities to promote sustainability in schools can lead to spatial inequality. If more of these charities are located in one area or certain authorities prioritise sustainability in education more over others, it will lead to a disparity across England. 

Lastly, one of the most crucial impacts of a bottom-up approach is the Government’s diminished involvement. Even though NGOs and local authorities act as a powerful voice collectively, when using platforms such as the SSA, they were unable to surpass the authority of Government. Environmental education was one of the four core pillars underpinning the National Curriculum, although it lost its status as part of the 2014 Coalition Government Education reform (King and Glackin, 2018). The campaign by the SSA to integrate the concept into the curriculum is still ongoing six years later. The out-dated guidance, lack of investment and curriculum reform does very little to promote sustainability in schools but rather belittles the work achieved on a local scale.

4. Scotland’s system

In order to effectively comment upon the next steps which should be taken, it is crucial to look outside of England and explore the systems implemented by other countries. Allan (2013) states that unlike England, the Scottish Government has an international reputation for embedding sustainability throughout the formal education system. From the concept underpinning the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning (General Teaching Council for Scotland, 2012) to it being one of the key initiatives in the national Curriculum for Excellence. However, the Scottish Government has supported local authorities, NGOs and schools both politically and financially. For example, The School Estate Strategy which has the vision of building sustainable school buildings was co-chaired by the Scottish Government (Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, 2009). Their partnership with initiatives such as this and guidance given to NGOs is effective as it ensures that all of Scotland follows uniform principles and standards yet gives way for the benefits of a bottom-up approach. Using this example of Scotland, we can see how the aforementioned balance between liberty and guidance can be met by integrating the two approaches when sourcing the attitude from Government. 

5. Conclusions

As a result of the analysis throughout this essay and through pointing to Scotland’s successful system, it is clear that the best strategy to achieve maximum sustainability in schools is a blend of the top-down vs bottom-up approach. As Government have adopted a bottom-up outlook since 2010, the next steps of action need to be aligned with the top-down ideology (Figure 3). There are a multitude of methods in which Government can increase their involvement and I would like to highlight two. Firstly, support NGOs and local authorities both politically and financially whilst ensuring a fair sense of spatiality. Secondly, use legislation to embed sustainability in schools. For example, one of the priorities of the student-led movement ‘Teach the Future’ is to prioritise sustainability in school inspections and one of their asks of Parliament is that by 2022 all new educational buildings must be designed and constructed to ensure they are net zero emissions buildings (Teach the Future England, 2020).

With thousands of teenagers attending climate-strike protests (BBC, 2019), the Government declaring a “National Environment and Climate emergency” and a plethora of warnings circulating academic circles, prioritising sustainability has never been so important. Now is the time to find that middle-ground approach: the perfect blend between liberty and guidance which has evidently succeeded since the commencement of embedding sustainability in schools. Morally, we cannot teach the forthcoming generation whilst harming their future.

6. References

BBC. (2019) Climate Strike: Thousands protest across UK. Available at: (Accessed 23rd December 2020)

Beckingham, K. (2020) How green is your school? [online] Independent Education Today. Available at: (Accessed 31st August)

Brundtland, G. (1987) World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Page reference: 16. Available at: hhtps:// (Accessed 23rd December 2020) 

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (2009) Building better schools: investing in Scotland’s future. Available at: (Accessed 27th December 2020).

Concept Draw. Sustainable Development Venn Diagram sample. [online.] Available at: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

Department for Children, Schools, and Families (2008) Sustainable Schools: A Brief Introduction [online]. Available from: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

Department for Education (2012) Top tips for sustainability in schools. [online] Available at: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

Department of Education and skills (2005) Government Response to the EAC Report on Education for Sustainable Development. Norwich: The Stationery Office. Available at: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

Allan, A (2013) The Scottish Government’s response to the Report of the One Planet Schools Working Group. Page reference: 3. Available at: (Accessed 27th December 2020)

Eco-schools (2020) Ten Topics (headings) [online] Available at: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

General Teaching Council for Scotland (2012). The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning: supporting the development of teacher professional learning. Available at: (Accessed 27th December 2020)

Groundwork UK. Progress Summary for Mainstreaming Sustainable Schools (2009). Cited in. Reynolds J & Scott WAH. Sustainable Schools in England: background and lessons learned. National Association of Field Studies Officers Annual Journal and Review. 2011. Page reference 2.

Hill, J. (2010) Letter to Ann Finlayson. 20 December. [online]. Available at: (Accessed 31st August)

King, H. & M. Glackin. (2018) But they don’t teach that in geography? [online] The Association For Science Education. Available at: (Accessed 31st August)

Ofsted (2008) Schools and Sustainability: a Climate for Change. [online] Available at: (Accessed 31st August 2020)

Reynolds J & Scott WAH (2011) Sustainable Schools in England: background and lessons learned. National Association of Field Studies Officers Annual Journal and Review 

Sustainable Development Commission (2011) Education. [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 31st August 2020)

Teach the Future (2020) Asks. [online] Page reference 6. Available at: (Accessed 6th January 2021)

The Clare Herald (2014). Clare Schools fly their 100th Green Flag. May 20th.

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