Background to the report

The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for the school system in England and is ultimately accountable for securing value for money from the funding it provides for schools, via a devolved system of responsibility.

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The school estate consists of around 21,600 maintained schools funded by DfE, of which more than 11,400 are run by local authorities and more than 10,200 are academies run by single or multi-academy trusts.

Education is the public sector’s largest emitter of carbon from buildings: 37% of public sector emissions, comprising 13% from state primary schools, 11% from state secondary schools and 13% from universities

In April 2022, DfE published an ambitious Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy (2022–2030). This overview considers DfE’s work to implement its strategy in its first year.

The strategy has a broad scope: it applies to DfE, its agencies and public bodies and the education and children’s services systems in England – early years, schools, further education, higher education, and children’s social care.

The strategy sets out DfE’s plans to meet obligations to improve the environment and its policies to improve the sustainability of education services and promote learning about and understanding of environmental sustainability and climate change. It makes 143 commitments in five broad areas: the education estate, green skills and careers, climate education, operations and supply chain, and international influence

Scope of the report

This is the seventh in a series of sustainability overviews we have produced, each of which examines how different parts of government fulfil their sustainability remit.

Our report gives an overview of the approach taken by the Department for Education (DfE) to environmental sustainability. It covers:

  • DfE’s approach to delivering and overseeing its sustainability strategy (Part One)
  • progress in the first year of its strategy and in meeting environmental obligations (Part Two)
  • DfE’s capacity to influence sustainable practices in new and existing schools, as well as its understanding of climate risk and energy efficiency of the school sector more generally (Part Three)


DfE is one year into its ambitious eight-year Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy. Its efforts so far have been in setting up internal structures and processes to enable it to manage, monitor and deliver a range of initiatives. It is still developing governance and accountability measures, and raising awareness of its aims both within DfE and the sector more generally.

DfE is taking steps to incorporate sustainability into its new build schools but net zero schools delivered through the School Rebuilding Programme will only represent 2% of the estate when complete.

To make the most of the money it has available, DfE is testing ways to reduce emissions and adapt the schools at highest risk of harm from climate change. These measures will not make a contribution to achieving government’s overall goals that is in proportion to the scale of emissions from the school estate unless they are rolled out at a much larger scale, and relatively soon. As it stands there is no plan in place for achieving the scale of decarbonisation across the education sector that is needed for DfE to make a proportionate contribution to government’s targets.

DfE is planning to secure additional funding for this work, but it does not yet have a clear view of the sector’s current sustainability position, what interventions offer the best value for money and what it will cost to decarbonise the school estate.

Given the uncertainty around the additional funding that is likely to be available, it is important that DfE works with the sector to share evidence for what works, to encourage schools to use their capital and maintenance funds to make improvements in a way that also supports government’s sustainability objectives.


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