CEO Strategy Group 3 – Environmental Sustainability

Forum Strategy has established 3 CEO strategy groups to support academy trust CEOs to focus on strategic priorities, in contrast to the reactivity and operational nature of managing the pandemic. These include groups on pupil and staff wellbeing; remote learning and working; and environmental sustainability; and can be attended by all #TrustLeaders network members. The following is a summary of the first meeting of the CEO Strategy Group on environmental sustainability, which took place on 7 December. The session was chaired by Rachael Gacs, Forum Strategy’s Resources and Communications Manager.

You can view the summary of CEO Strategy Group 1 – pupil and staff wellbeing, here: CEO Strategy Group 1 – Pupil and Staff Wellbeing; and the summary of CEO Strategy Group 2 – remote learning and working, here: CEO Strategy Group 2 – Remote Learning and Working.


As with the other two strategic groups, this group on environmental sustainability was established as a direct result of the findings from Forum’s recently published ‘Being the CEO’ report 2020, which identified that this issue is one of the lowest priorities for academy trust CEOs over the coming year. This is in stark contrast to the priorities of the young people, for whom environmental sustainability is a top priority and is directly intertwined with their concerns and hopes for the future. We decided to establish this strategy group to support trust leaders in making environmental sustainability a core strategic priority.  

Rachael highlighted the findings from the SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education) Youth Listening Project 2018/19, which included a survey of 1300 young people, mostly of secondary school age and mostly from the UK. This brought into sharp focus young people’s hopes and concerns, with 87% of those surveyed concerned that climate change will negatively affect their lives but also with a resounding message that they wish to be supported and empowered to take positive action themselves.

There’s therefore a key role for trusts in ensuring their pupils and students are well-informed about environmental sustainability (rather than relying on social media for much of their information); supporting them to feel hopeful about the future; empowering them to make a difference; and getting them excited about the prospect of helping to build a better world. Trusts can also begin to better model sustainability so that young people can see that the adults around them care about their future and are ‘walking the talk’ on these vital issues.

Rachael highlighted some of the commitments being made by a range of major organisations across the world, which clearly model their strategic focus on environmental sustainability – including McDonalds’ commitment to using 100% renewable, recycled or certified sustainable packing within eight years; and Tottenham Hotspur’s banning of all single use plastics across their ground. More and more organisations across the economy and industry are setting goals and a timeframe for becoming ‘carbon neutral’.

Some of the ways in which academy trusts can model sustainability include:

  • Increasing recycling and reducing landfill waste
  • Making more and better use of sustainable materials
  • Banning single use plastic
  • Creating ‘green spaces’ on their sites
  • Encouraging pupils and staff to walk or cycle to school
  • Improving the energy efficiency of all their sites – through greener energy and buildings
  • Working towards becoming carbon neutral

Additionally, as well as modelling sustainability, academy trusts are in a strong position to prioritise environmental sustainability within their vision and strategic plan; educate young people and help them make sense of the facts and encourage them to be hopeful about the future and empowered to make a difference.


The group was then joined by Professor Bill Scott from the Department for Education at the University of Bath, who is also Chair of the National Association for Environmental Education (NAEE).

Professor Scott considered the place of environmental issues within the curriculum, and  commented that the DfE has never been keen on these being taught as a standalone subject and argue that these topics are adequately embedded within national curriculum study programmes in a range of subjects. The NAEE has published two guides that show where environmental issues feature in the national curriculum. However, during the climate strikes of autumn 2019, young people complained that the environmental education they received through other curriculum subjects was insufficient in providing the level of information they both need and desire.

Professor Scott then set out some key messages regarding curriculum coverage, curriculum progression, how trusts can lower their carbon footprint, and importantly for the CEOs themselves. At the heart of these are some core messages for academy trusts to have as a focus of their work with children and young people:

  • Hope and determination regarding environmental sustainability needs to triumph over gloom and anxiety.
  • Young people need schools to give them balanced information and help them think through the issues.
  • The national curriculum only goes so far; and trusts’ curriculum freedoms provide an opportunity to rethink the place of environmental education across all subjects and in a more holistic way.
  • Curriculum progression for children and young people must deal with complex and worrying issues in a nuanced and age-appropriate way, which supports them to move smoothly from awareness to knowledge to understanding to argument.
  • Trusts can start by working to lower their carbon and ecological footprint, engaging with willing students and the wider community.
  • Trust CEOs are in a good position to lead and influence others and support students to turn their interests, commitment, concerns and anxieties about the environment into positive action.


Jenn Plews – CEO, Northern Star Academies Trust

Rachael then introduced Jenn Plews, CEO of Northern Star Academies Trust (NSAT) which serves very diverse communities in Keighley, Skipton, and Harrogate. Three of the trust’s schools are based in locations that are in the bottom ten percent of the most deprived communities in the country, which makes it vital to have a high-quality focus on inclusion and sustainability.

Jenn presented a brilliant infographic to the group, highlighting the trust’s journey to making environmental sustainability a core strategic priority – a journey which began about 18 months ago and has been very much led by the chair of the trust, who challenged Jenn as CEO to think more about this issue. The trust’s vision “to nurture learning in a sustainable environment so that our whole community can thrive, aspire and succeed” is about making a pledge to do something different for the trust’s children and community. Sustainability is also wedded to the language used throughout the NSAT ‘promise’ to its children and families, is a standing item on every trust board meeting and is a key priority in the trust’s academy development plans.

The trust focuses on three core pillars. Its curriculum pillar focuses on studying fewer things but in greater depth. Building on the will of pupils to engage in environmental issues, the trust plans to spend 2021 focusing on waste, supported by a waste consultant and training pupils in three primary schools to become waste analysts, leading to a presentation to the trust board in the summer term. Making use of local opportunities also features strongly, with one of the trust’s primary schools enabling all pupils to participate in drystone walling. The environment pillar sets ‘learning in inspiring environments’ at its core, including a requirement that every NSAT school has a community allotment and/or community garden. The organisational sustainability pillar emphasises that the trust is ‘owned by everybody’, a core element of which is the goal of decarbonising three of the trust’s schools by the end of the 2020/21 academic year – a project being led by the trust’s COO.

Wayne Norrie – CEO, Greenwood Academies Trust

Next, colleagues heard from Wayne Norrie, CEO of Greenwood Academies Trust (GAT), about how the trust is enabling student-led sustainability. GAT serves a range of communities that are economically and socially disadvantaged, with over half of the pupils in receipt of free school meals. Wayne described how the focus on environmental sustainability began with teaching pupils and students across the trust how to engage and debate these issues, giving them the confidence to describe what is important to them. This work found that LGBTQ rights, careers for the future, and the environment were pupils’ top priorities. Each one of these has been taken up as a separate strand. The trust engaged an organisation called Human Utopia, which worked with pupils across the trust to develop their confidence in articulating their priorities.

Wayne explained that, whenever the trust develops a new policy, it asks what effect it will have on the pupils, staff, and their environment. A group of students are leading the trust’s work on environmental sustainability and Wayne suggested that future sessions of the strategy group should hear from young people, as they are the focus of this work for all trusts.

GAT is also applying for funding to support the decarbonisation of all its schools and is currently building a new free school in Nottingham that will be a full green school . Pupils and students across the trust are engaged in several projects, including a DfE project to design plans for an exemplar low carbon primary school; and working with the trust’s operations director on local school and trust projects – such as upgrading all lighting. Wayne described the trust’s deliberate focus (pre-COVID) on developing their IT structure to support their aim to reduce travel and reduce the trust’s overall carbon footprint. There is also a team of students across the trust who are working with catering managers to look at reducing packaging and challenging suppliers on their environmental priorities. The trust is also working with the organisation FairShare to develop an app that can link available food (that would otherwise go to landfill) with where it is needed – with the aim of ensuring the trust’s FSM children can be fed all year round.

Colleagues reflected that they had been inspired by the presentations from Professor Scott, Jenn, and Wayne; and hearing about how much these two trusts had already achieved in developing and embedding their environmental sustainability agenda certainly gave everyone in the group food for thought as they move into 2021. Discussions during the session indicated that while most colleagues are near the beginning of their journey in this regard, they are fully committed and excited to have the opportunity to think more carefully about their role in providing pupils and students with the knowledge and tools to engage as active citizens in the global environmental sustainability agenda.


  • CEOs should consider how sustainability is placed on their board’s agenda, and to consider how to relates to the trust’s strategy and decision making
  • Trusts should consider how they ensure pupil voice is heard on environment issues and has a tangible influence of strategy, policy and practice within trusts
  • Trusts should look to align pupils’ passion for the environment with wider curriculum activities, including the development of public speaking skills and community leadership opportunities.
  • Trusts should consider applying for funding and grants that relates to greener energy and decarbonisation, with a number of public and private funding opportunities currently available
  • In line with the previous point, and for greater sustainability, trusts should audit their sites and buildings to identify opportunities for investing greener energy and the greater energy efficient of buildings. Despite upfront costs, trusts should look to make this an investment that provides returns in the medium term.
  • Trusts should consider reducing travel by harnessing the growth in technology use and awareness amongst staff and parents.
  • Consider how pupils (and teachers) can learn from greener energy innovators and industry leaders. Trusts are in an excellent place to build relationships and partnerships with industry. It was suggested that older pupils and those in secondary school and sixth form could recieve mentoring / work placements from leading green energy organisations – not least as this is such a growth industry.

The next meeting if the Group will take place in early 2021 and is once again open to all #TrustLeaders members. Date TBC via members’ and subscribers’ briefings.

Find out more about our CEO Strategy Groups here.


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