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It’s time for schools to go green

| November 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Lindsay Mccay and John Lobban

Internationally and locally, schools are increasingly looking for ways to ‘go green’ in affordable and socially responsible ways.

Schools have a unique opportunity to set examples by promoting the use of renewable energy and creating environmental awareness; not only in building and through the use of technology, but also through the lessons learned by pupils and passed on to the community. Progressive, smart schools can use their environmental strategies to innovate, improve efficiency, lower operating costs, create value and build competitive advantage.

Sustainability reporting

At the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012 in Brazil, the governments of Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa joined together to form a ‘Group of Friends of Paragraph 47’ to investigate ways for advancing best practices on corporate sustainability reporting. While these governments’ commitment to advancing integrated reporting marks one of the most positive outcomes of Rio+20, speakers at a recent South African ‘post-mortem’ held by the National Business Initiative (NBI)1 expressed their frustration at the lack of coordinated activity between business, government and civil society.

One of the key blockages to corporate uptake of sustainability practices was a mindset issue, said Elias Masilela, CEO of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).2 He decried the culture of ‘short-termism’ in business, with CEOs merely responding to their mandate to operate and show a profit. Masilela stressed the need for organisations to change and adopt a longer-term view and noted that no fiduciary obligation could ever supersede social and environmental responsibility. The meeting concluded with the message that South African businesses should not wait for government to lead sustainable development: “Innovation has never started in government – only in the private sector,” Masilela said.

Independent schools fall squarely in this realm and are showing signs that they are rising to the sustainability challenge and, in many cases, leading the way in terms of corporate commitment. This is reinforced by the now-compulsory integrated reporting required by the King Report on Governance 2009 (King III)3, which became effective in March 2010 and recommends that boards annually issue an integrated report on their organisation’s triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental performance.

The cost of going green

There is, however, also an element of ‘short-termism’ or shortsightedness in the corporate sector locally as well as internationally in the area of environmental stewardship, as a recent study done by Gregory Kats of Capital E, a leading US clean energy technology and green building firm, shows.4 Kats’ research was motivated by a 2005 construction company survey, which found that American executives are discouraged from undertaking green construction because of concerns about cost and a lack of awareness about financial benefits.

Kats feels strongly that schools’ failure to invest in green technologies is financially irresponsible. He undertook his study to make the case for the financial, environmental and health benefits of education institutions ‘going green’. A review of Kats’ research comments that it “shows that investments in green technologies significantly reduce the lifecycle cost of operating school buildings – and the public benefits of green schools are even larger than those that work directly to the financial advantage of schools”.5

Kats concludes that ‘green’ schools generally cost less than 2% more than conventional schools to build, but provide financial benefits that are 20 times as great. “Greening school design provides an extraordinarily cost-effective way to reduce operational and health costs, enhance student learning and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness,” he says. According to his calculations, green building and the consequent reduced operations and maintenance costs would save enough money for an average school to pay for an additional full-time teacher. Green schools also provide a range of non-quantifiable benefits, including reduced insurance risks, improved water, air and power quality and reliability, reduced teacher sick days, educational enrichment and long-term environmental awareness for pupils, estimates Kats.

Roedean School (SA) in Johannesburg is an ISASA school that has undertaken to incorporate green technology into the construction of its new boarding establishment. According to the school, the blending of modern-day technology with the design used by renowned colonial architect, Sir Herbert Baker, proved challenging because certain elements had to be used to meet the requirements of the SANS energy efficiency specification.6 Advanced insulation materials were incorporated into the facility, for example, as well as air source heat pump systems for heating and water, energy-efficient lighting, water-saving taps and special glass for windows. Green architectural and building specialists who worked on the project said the new heating systems alone will be up to 50% more efficient than alternative systems and will save Roedean 70% on operating costs.

Independent schools showing the way

ISASA recently asked its member schools to comment on their efforts to be more environmentally aware, and was interested to learn more about greening from the responses received. Some stories have already been showcased in previous editions of Independent Education (e.g. ‘Elkanah House: crafting commitment’ in volume 15, number 3, spring 2012). Most of our member schools continue to work resourcefully and efficiently, turning their institutions into models of environmental sustainability, and collecting accolades from both their own communities and international organisations such as Eco-Schools – a programme of the Foundation for Environmental Education operating in over 51 countries worldwide and managed locally by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) in partnership with the Worldwide Fund for Nature – South Africa (WWF-SA).

Eco-Schools is focused on improving school environmental management and learning, and already many of the ISASA schools that have joined the programme have been awarded their Green Flags in recognition of their efforts to protect the environment (the Green Flags programme is a companion of the Blue Flag clean beaches programme) and are working towards their International Flags. One of these is St Stithians College in Johannesburg, which employs a wide variety of programmes dealing with different aspects of green and environmental issues. The multi-school campus has its own recycling depot that manages all waste at the college – from the sorting of recyclables, arranging collections of wet waste, and training staff and residents on what and how to recycle, to management of scrap metal and e-waste. From September 2011 to May 2012 alone, the campus recycled 96 705 kg of waste and earned an income of R69 508 from this. Other initiatives include the installation of solar geysers and heat pumps (using Eskom7 rebates on all installations), changing all lighting to more environmentally responsible options, and monitoring water consumption.

Another example of a proactive school is Highbury Preparatory School in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), whose tagline for its green programme is ‘Enviro-stretch: a conscious effort by the Highbury family to develop an environmental conscience that will translate into a sustainable future for the school, its community, and the environment at large’. Highbury has extended its environmental activities from its curriculum to its buildings and grounds and out into its local community. An environmental audit was conducted to establish the school’s carbon footprint and programmes put in place to manage waste and reduce energy use. A worm farm and organic vegetable garden were started and indigenous trees and shrubs planted to replace aliens. Further afield, Highbury established links with disadvantaged schools in the Inanda Valley, providing food parcels and assisting teachers with their lesson planning and resources – and to show its reach is not just local, it has partnered with a school in the UK with which it is sharing resources.

Hermannsburg School in KZN is also a Green Flag school that has incorporated environmental awareness and sustainability into both its curriculum and its very active Nature Club. The club’s aim is to teach pupils “about the world around us and to help them to understand the importance of our task as custodians of the earth”. The school is involved in recycling, littercontrol programmes, and planting indigenous trees and plants in the school gardens and on the vast grounds. It has a vegetable garden supplying the boarding establishments, a wormery and a wild flower reserve bordering on the campus. Every year, the school participates in the interschool Mondi-WESSA National Enviro Quiz8 and has won the national finals for nine years of the 22 that the quiz has been running.

Conclusion: the green-way or no-way There is no doubt that the ‘green issue’ is here to stay. Schools are already committed to curriculum change and environmental awareness practices, as many of the ISASA schools show in their reports on the ways in which they are reducing their environmental footprint while generating fun and learning action for the whole school community. Not as many have yet taken the green technology challenge and incorporated it into construction projects.

This is, however, likely to change as greening school design proves to be cost-effective. Green schools might cost more than conventional schools to build, but there are strong indications that the financial benefits of greening schools are substantially more than the cost of going green.

More and more schools are taking the green route and when one looks at the lifecycle costs of a building, the improved learning environments, and the corresponding lessons and examples being taught, it becomes clear that this is definitely the ‘high’-way!


1. The National Business Initiative (NBI) is a voluntary group of leading national and multinational companies, working together towards sustainable growth and development in South Africa through partnerships, practical programmes and policy engagement. See The Rio ‘post-mortem’ was summarised in one of the NBI’s ‘Quick Briefs’: Okwang, A. (2012) ‘SA reporting leads the way at Rio+20 while accelerated collaboration required from business.’ Available at: Publication-Details.aspx?NBIweb=e586ac5b-bcad-49be-ba41- 81b0f1fa2ba3&NBIlist=baaa9251-7130-4824-a0e9- 0991a4bd678f&NBIitem=251.

2. PIC is one of the largest and most successful investment managers in Africa. See

3. The revised Code of and Report on Governance Principles for South Africa (King III) were released on 1 September 2009, with an effective date of 1 March 2010. The revision was necessitated by the Companies Act, 2008. Both of these developments position South Africa at the forefront of good governance on the international stage. Source: abid/626/language/en-ZA/Default.aspx. To access the King report, visit ing_Code_Flip_Book.html.

4. Kats, G. (2006) ‘Greening America’s schools: costs and benefits.’ Washington, DC: Capital E. Available at: http://www.cape. com/ewebeditpro/items/O59F9819.pdf.

5. Ibid.

6. SANS refers to the Energy Efficiency Standards that were introduced in 2011 by the government, specifying minimum insulation levels for all new homes and buildings built in South Africa. Source: http://www. 0specification%20of%20thermal%20insulation%20July%202011.pdf.

7. Eskom is South Africa’s national power provider.

8. To learn more about these quizzes, visit

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2012

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