Sustainability and climate change: summary of the DfE's strategy

The government has published its sustainability strategy to improve the education sector’s response to climate change by 2030. Find out what it's planning to introduce and when, and how your school will be affected.

Last reviewed on 5 June 2024See updates
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  1. What is it?
  2. What’s happening, and when?
  3. You don’t have to do anything just yet
  4. New initiatives: a virtual environment and climate qualification
  5. Climate education
  6. Green skills and careers
  7. School premises
  8. Operations and supply chain
5 June 2024: some of the dates in the DfE's sustainability and climate change strategy have now passed. The DfE have not updated its strategy to reflect this, and many of the aims and initiatives outlined in the strategy have not yet been reached.

In December 2023, the DfE published a progress report on what had been achieved so far. It is not clear from this document if some of the original aims are still in progress.

We will update this article when more information becomes available. Click 'save for later' at the top of the article to be notified when this happens.

What is it?

It’s the DfE’s strategy to improve sustainability and its response to climate change by 2030. 

It sets out 4 main aims:

  • Climate education: preparing pupils for a world impacted by climate change through learning and practical experience
  • Net zero: reducing emissions from education buildings and providing opportunities for pupils to get involved in the transition to net zero 
  • Resilience: adapting school buildings and systems to prepare for the effects of climate change 
  • A better environment for future generations: enhancing biodiversity, improving air quality and increasing access to (and connection with) nature in and around schools 

This article summarises the points that relate to your school. You can read the strategy in full via the link above. 

What’s happening, and when?

The strategy sets out a number of goals between now and 2030. We’ve listed these in their relevant sections below, but here’s a timeline of the key dates:   

September 2023: the government will offer a T-level in agriculture, land management and production.

December 2023: the DfE will begin to roll out:

  • A digital hub of resources, best practice and tools to help you develop, or build on, your climate action plan. This will include access to carbon literacy training for those who need it
  • Access to a network of regional co-ordinators who will provide local expert support and peer to peer learning opportunities 

By 2023: the DfE will: 

  • Develop a model curriculum for science at primary level 
  • Pilot a food curriculum and a whole-school approach to food. This will include encouraging you to publish a statement about your school’s approach on your website
  • Publish a framework to evaluate the impact of the actions set out within the strategy

By 2025: the DfE aims to:

  • Introduce a natural history GCSE 
  • Have delivered carbon literacy training to all those who need it (note: having reviewed their original sustainability strategy from April 2022, the DfE have determined that each setting will have different requirements, so carbon literacy training will be delivered only to those that need it)

You don’t have to do anything just yet

There are currently no reporting requirements, but the government is keeping this decision under review as it develops its evaluation framework. 

As mentioned above, by 2023 you’ll be encouraged to publish a statement about your school’s approach to food on your school website. The DfE plans to make this mandatory once schools are able to do it effectively. 

Also, while there are no immediate actions, the strategy may ultimately impact areas such as your: 

  • Curriculum 
  • CPD plans 
  • Careers guidance 
  • School premises
  • Procurement processes 

New initiatives: a virtual environment and climate qualification

The strategy doesn’t go into much detail about these ideas as they're currently in the pilot phase. We’ll update this article when the DfE releases more information – select ‘save for later’ at the top of the page to stay in the loop. 

National Education Nature Park 

The DfE plans to consider the whole physical education estate as a virtual “National Education Nature Park”. 

It will directly involve pupils in measuring and improving biodiversity in their school or nursery. 

Pupils will be able to: 

  • Upload their progress onto the park’s digital mapping services
  • See how the park is ‘growing’
  • Increase their knowledge of species 
  • Develop skills such as biodiversity mapping, data collection and analysis

Climate Leaders Award (also called the Climate Action Award)

This qualification will:

  • Complement classroom learning 
  • Celebrate and recognise schools and pupils for: 
    • Developing their connection with nature 
    • Contributing to a sustainable future 
  • Provide a structured route through existing awards in this area, such as the Duke of Edinburgh award  
  • Be recognised and valued by employers and higher education providers 

Register for updates direct from the Natural History Museum.

Climate education

Aim: To offer young people a better: 

  • Understanding of climate change 
  • Connection to nature 

Learning about the natural environment 

From 2022, the DfE introduced an annual climate literacy survey to benchmark progress in improving the climate knowledge of school leavers. The findings will be used to help assess the impact of its action. We’ll update this article if the DfE clarifies any further detail, such as when the next survey will be, whether it’ll be mandatory and whether your school will be held accountable for it.   

By 2025, the DfE aims to introduce a natural history GCSE, where pupils will: 

  • Explore organisms and environments in more depth 
  • Gain knowledge and practical experience of fieldwork 
  • Develop a greater understanding of conservation 

Support for teaching 

From 2022, the DfE said it will: 

  • Include climate change and sustainability in science teachers’ CPD 
  • Share best practice, demonstrating how schools have incorporated sustainability and climate change into teaching and, where relevant, enriched their broader curriculum
  • Consider where relevant subjects could go into more detail on sustainability, for example by teaching about the circular economy in design and technology 
  • Promote and share relevant teaching resources from other government departments 

There have been no recent updates about these initiatives. We’ll update this article when the DfE releases more information. Select ‘save for later’ at the top of this article to be alerted when we know more.

By 2023, the DfE will: 

  • Develop a primary science model curriculum with an emphasis on nature
  • Provide free access to curriculum resources through the National Education Nature Park online hub 
  • Provide a digital hub of resources, best practice and tools to help you develop, or build on, your climate action plan. This will include access to carbon literacy training for those who need it

Learning in the natural environment 

In 2022, the DfE said it will: 

  • Explore opportunities to increase access to the outdoors through its Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme 
  • Make sure pupils attending the HAF programme participate in activities that improve their knowledge and awareness of affordable, healthy eating and sustainable practice, e.g. by: 
    • Taking part in activities such as food preparation 
    • Cooking
    • Discussing food and food sources 
    • Growing their own fruit and vegetables
  • Explore opportunities to:
    • Support schools to deliver quality outdoor education
    • Increase access to out-of-school activities for all pupils 
  • Provide educational activities so school communities can learn through educational building, maintenance and procurement projects, such as: 
    • Low-carbon boiler replacements 
    • Smart meter installation 
    • Energy monitoring pilots 
    • Sustainable drainage systems 

Political impartiality 

You need to ground any debates on political and policy change in wider citizenship education on democracy and democratic values, and handle topics in line with your legal duties on political impartiality

Green skills and careers

Aim: To inspire young people to choose – and give them the skills and knowledge they need for – career paths that support: 

  • The transition to net zero 
  • The restoration of biodiversity 
  • A sustainable future   

Support for green jobs and skills 

As well as through its Net Zero Strategy, the government aims to support progression into green careers by: 

  • Offering a T-level in agriculture, land management and production by September 2023
  • Linking participation in the Climate Leaders Award to skills required by employers 
  • Supporting schools to deliver careers information that informs pupils of the careers in the green sector available to them 
  • Providing assembly information and interactive class exercises to help pupils see and learn about a wide range of green careers and skills in action 

School premises

Aim: To improve the physical environment in and around education settings so it is resilient to the impacts of climate change and inspires young people and others to live sustainable lives. 

Note: this 'action area' will be piloted until 2025 while the DfE investigates the best value for money approach. It will set sustainability targets for schools between 2025 and 2035. 

New builds and new blocks 

All new school buildings delivered by the DfE (which aren’t already contracted) will be:

  • Net zero in operation
  • Designed for a 2°C rise in average global temperatures
  • Future-proofed for a 4°C rise, to adapt to risks such as increased flooding and higher indoor temperatures
  • Equipped with sustainable ICT solutions

Existing estate 

The DfE will: 

  • Continue to trial the use of smart meters in schools 
  • Explore sharing schools' smart meter data directly with the DfE, so it can advise them on reducing energy bills and improving energy efficiency
  • Trial the delivery of Energy Management Systems to provide schools with real-time information about their energy usage
  • Support schools to put climate action plans in place by 2025, so it can monitor the implementation of solutions to alleviate flood risk, protect against increased heat and improve air quality 
  • Share best practice with schools by 2023 to help them decide where to invest money to reduce carbon emissions, and improve sustainability and resilience 
  • Develop its estate management guidance for schools with updated tips and good practice on the sustainable management of school premises 

Exploring resilience and adaptation of existing buildings 

The DfE will accelerate pilots to investigate: 

  • The resilience of existing buildings to heat and flooding
  • How their access to nature can be improved 
  • How their environmental conditions (overheating and air quality) can be improved 

By 2023, it will: 

  • Explore how funding may support schools and nurseries to improve the biodiversity, air quality, shading and flood resistance along the routes between settings 
  • Continue to evaluate the UK’s first “Biophilic” primary school 
  • Pilot the use of smart air and environmental quality monitors in schools 
  • Provide guidance to all schools for practical ways to reduce air pollution (both indoors and outdoors)
  • Encourage schools and partners to expand anti-idling zones to reduce the impact of the school commute 

Heating solutions 

The DfE is launching 10 pilots to test heating solutions for school premises. The DfE said in 2022 that it will see how feasible it would be to replace school boilers with ground or air source heat solutions. 

Water strategy (including weather and floods)  

The DfE will:

  • Encourage all schools to sign up to available weather and flood warnings 
  • Share a flood risk plan template with schools that are at the highest risk of flooding 
  • Work with the Environment Agency to help make sure schools are ready for and resilient to flooding and coastal change 

By 2023: it will display the school's flood risk alongside emissions and biodiversity on the National Education Nature Park.  

By 2026: it aims to reduce the flood risk in over 800 schools.  

By 2030: it aims to work with water wholesalers and retailers to improve water efficiency at the 10,000 least water-efficient schools. 

Operations and supply chain

Aim: To encourage schools to operate and regulate in a way that introduces pupils to more sustainable practices, such as: 

  • The circular economy
  • Waste prevention
  • Resource efficiency 

Sustainable leadership 

By 2023: the DfE will start rolling out a digital hub of resources, best practice and tools to help you develop, or build on, your climate action plan. This will include access to carbon literacy training for those who need it.

By 2025: all schools will have nominated a sustainability lead and have put a climate action plan in place.

Sustainable procurement

By 2023, the DfE will: 

  • Encourage and support schools to procure from companies that commit to achieving net zero by 2050 and have a plan in place to show how they’ll meet this target 
  • Make sure that sustainability is part of the assessment and validation criteria for including suppliers on procurement frameworks to support sustainable purchasing of products and services, including energy, in schools 
  • Support schools to buy from procurement frameworks that offer sustainable goods and services 

Preventing food waste 

By 2023, the DfE will: 

  • Work with schools to share best practice for delivering and improving uptake of nutritionally balanced, affordable and sustainable meal choices 
  • Pilot a food curriculum and a whole-school approach to food, which will involve encouraging schools to complete a statement on their website setting out their whole-school approach. This will initially be voluntary, but the DfE intends to make it mandatory once schools can do it effectively 
  • Pilot new training for governors on a whole-school approach to food
  • Support schools to drive up their sustainable practices in line with the school food standards, with consideration of the ingredients they use and their environmental impact 
  • Encourage and support schools to gather data and take action on food waste, and share their evidence-based best practice for sustainable waste prevention and management 
  • Share resources with schools that support food waste prevention 
  • Encourage schools to consider a rounded approach to providing food, including practical guidance on consolidating food deliveries and sourcing food locally where possible 

Promoting the circular economy 

By 2023, the DfE will: 

  • Support schools to reduce all waste, moving away from single-use items and towards reusable alternatives where possible 
  • Encourage schools to promote the circular economy by using items such as:
    • Reusable nappies
    • Recycled materials
    • Second-hand uniforms
    • Sustainable cutlery
    • Sustainable cleaning products  
  • Continue to offer a range of free sustainable period products to pupils 
  • Seek opportunities to rationalise deliveries to schools, through minimum order values or changes to delivery models 

By 2025 the DfE will: 

  • Eradicate single-use plastics and encourage the use of reusable and recyclable materials in schools 
  • Provide guidance for schools to help them meet the requirements of the Environment Act 2021

By 2030: schools will support a circular economy through their participation in the Climate Leaders Award and National Education Nature Park, for example, by using food waste to produce compost that can then be used directly or in the local community. 

Article Updates

6 June 2023

We've updated this article to reflect the DfE's updated sustainability leadership and climate action plans in education.

We have:

  • Tweaked the wording throughout the article where dates have now passed
  • Made it clearer that individuals will only need to undertake carbon literacy training if they need it - the DfE has clarified that not all settings will need this training, but the DfE will make it available as part of its digital hub
14 December 2022

We've updated this section to add more detail on additional funding for schools to improve their energy efficiency. 

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