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Youth social action: Eco-Schools

Written by: Elena Lengthorn
7 min read
Elena Lengthorn, Senior Lecturer Teacher Education, University of Worcester, UK

We are hearing more and more about the environmental degradation that we are inflicting on our planet: the loss of Arctic sea ice (NASA, 2019); the non-linear sea level rise from land-based ice melt (Malmquist, 2018) and subsequent flooding; the continued deterioration of biodiversity in the UK (Packham et al., 2018, DEFRA, 2019); reports from child health experts that UK air pollution is damaging children’s health (UNICEF, 2019); the death of half the world’s coral reefs (, 2018); reduced fish populations due to global warming (Aaron-Morrison et al., 2017) and ocean plastics; and weather volatility from increased energy in the atmosphere (Herring et al., 2018), including storms, flood frequency and strength.

Sustainability is an enormous concern for all humanity, for both the current and the next generation, and there is a lack of clear curriculum guidance and structure about educating children with the knowledge, skills and values that they need to navigate the ecological crisis in whose midst they are growing up. The intention of this article is to introduce you to the Eco-Schools programme, a tried and tested, international, freely available and easily accessible framework that underpins education for sustainable development (ESD) in a way that moves beyond simplistic solutions to embedded practices and deeper understanding.

Whilst there are not yet any statistics available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety (anxiety about ecological disasters and threats to the natural environment, such as pollution and climate change), there has been some reporting of an increase in public anxiety around climate change (BBC, 2019). Caroline Hickman, an academic at the University of Bath and member of the Climate Psychology Alliance executive, recognises that young people have the largest stake in finding solutions, and Alison Roy, from the Association of Child Psychotherapists, is quoted in The Independent with regard to climate change activism and its role in helping to ‘counteract powerlessness and the sense of being done to. To have a role where they feel people value their opinion is massively important’ amongst children and teenagers (Busby, 2019).

The Eco-Schools programme, administered in England by Keep Britain Tidy, is a student-led global programme delivered within 67 countries, with over 19.5 million children involved (with 20,000 schools in England). For over 25 years, the programme has empowered children to improve their environmental awareness and, importantly, drive change in their schools and communities. In 2019, Eco-Schools were chosen to feature in the HundrED Sustainability Spotlight. HundrED is a global charity that selects 100 innovative programmes from around the world that improve education and are pedagogically sound.

This creative programme is based around a straightforward, student-led, seven-step process (Figure 1), with a choice of 10 topics to work within (Figure 2). Teachers should be aware that this is a student-led programme that empowers pupils to lead change within their schools, with the teacher Eco-Schools Coordinator working as a facilitator, providing guidance and support. It involves hands-on learning, most often delivered in extra-curricular time during lunch or after school, with aspirations of whole-school and wider-community involvement, which has been shown to increase knowledge of and engagement in ecological issues, as well as an improvement in the local environment. It doesn’t require any specialist background, with a myriad of Eco-Schools online support and training available, but is embedded more readily when there is preliminary and ongoing support from senior leaders and school governors.

Figure 1: The Eco-Schools seven-step process (Eco-Schools, 2020a)

Figure 1: The Eco-Schools seven-step process (Eco-Schools, 2020a)

Figure 2: The 10 Eco-Schools England topics
Eco-Schools England 10 topics (the topics vary slightly in different nations)
·         Biodiversity

·         Energy

·         Global citizenship

·         Healthy living

·         Litter

·         Marine

·         School grounds

·         Transport

·         Waste

·         Water

There are three progressive award levels (Bronze Award, Silver Award and Green Flag), which allow schools to connect and celebrate all the environmental work that they are doing. The topics are easy to incorporate into school life and the curriculum at all educational phases. Eco-Schools have helpfully mapped the links out and developed lesson plans and resources accordingly. Schools must work on a minimum of three topics, of the 10 available, to secure their Silver Award and Green Flag, with flag-renewal schools (undertaken every two years) working on five topics, including a change of two of those five topics for every subsequent renewal.

An Eco-Committee consists of pupils who lead the environmental reviewing process (using a provided template to explore the 10 topics in your school’s actions and curriculum) and action plan (using the results of the review to plan which activities to focus on), alongside a variety of adult supporters, from the Eco-School Coordinator and subject staff, caretaking and catering staff to parents and governors.

In December 2019, Eco-Schools England hosted their inaugural Eco-Schools Award Ceremony at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, where 16 awards were presented to recognise and celebrate inspirational work within the 10 topics, recognising three Eco-Schools of the Year (Early Years, primary and secondary), Eco-Coordinator of the Year, Green Flag Assessor of the Year and the esteemed Eco-Schools Lifetime Achievement Award.

The potential of the Eco-Schools programme can be evidenced by a case study of the Canon Burrows Church of England Primary School, the recipients of that Lifetime Achievement Award. They secured their first International Green Flag in 1998 and a further nine in the interim. A member of staff at the school, Mrs Nickson, introduced environmental management work with groups of children as early as 1977. Following her retirement, Andy Clark, who started at the school in 1987, took the reins and expanded the projects for which the school became recognised. The collaboration with the Eco-Schools programme led Canon Burrows to take a different approach in introducing a student-led Eco-Committee, providing pupil s with opportunities to have a voice within the environmental direction of the school. It proved a key driver for the early realisation of the importance of pupil voice, something that is now well established in the UK.

The Eco-Schools programme provides a unique opportunity for pupils to lead positive change within and beyond their schools – a scheme for pupils in all phases to collaborate and develop environmental knowledge and awareness. Independent research for Eco-Schools England found evidence of ‘positive impacts on pupils, including increased confidence, development of leaderships skills, improved pupil well-being and behaviour and greater motivation at school’ (Eco-Schools, 2020b).

Eco-Schools activities at Canon Burrows have included efforts as varied as walk-to-school and bulb-planting weeks, presentations on walking to Living Streets Manchester, attending the Mayor’s Green Summit, composting, litter picking, organising Green Fairs, Happy Shoesday, winning school garden awards and hosting visiting teachers from overseas to share green practice. Andy Clark recognises that there have been changes in the Eco-Committee’s interests, e.g. from getting free-range eggs on the menu at school to a strong will now to addressing the problems of single-use plastics; however, the level of passion to protect the environment has remained the same and continues to grow.

Lee Wray-Davies, manager at Eco-Schools, reflected on the recent 25th anniversary of the programme (Wray-Davis, 2020):

‘No school in England has to be an Eco-School, and yet 19,900 Eco-Coordinators have given their valuable time (some for over 20 years) to manage and run the programme in their schools, on top of the additional pressures and responsibilities they face within an ever-changing education sector. The maturity and determination of their students to make an environmental difference is a testimony to these inspiring individuals and the Eco-Schools programme as a whole. We are the largest educational programme on the planet and I don’t doubt will continue to be for another generation.’

As a former secondary school Eco-Schools Coordinator, having supported thousands of committed pupils to achieve five successive Green Flags and an Ambassador Award, I continue to advocate for this personal and planet-changing programme. I can attest to its power and simplicity in motivating young people and educators to be the change that is needed as we face the climate emergency. Activism has been recognised as an antidote to the mental ill-health emerging through the climate crisis, and engagement with the Eco-Schools programme can be a therapeutic action process for teachers as well as pupils.


Aaron-Morrison AP, Ackerman SA, Adams NG et al. (2017) State of the climate in 2016. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98(8): Si–S280.

BBC (2019) ‘Eco-anxiety’: How to spot it and what to do about it. Available at: (accessed 31 January 2020).

Busby E (2019) Climate change activism ‘reducing mental health symptoms among young people’. The Independent, 28 November, 19. Available at: (accessed 31 January 2020).

DEFRA (2019) UK biodiversity indicators 2019 revised. Available at: (accessed 21 January 2020).

Eco-Schools (2020a) How it works. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

Eco-Schools (2020b) Why become ad Eco-School? Available at: (accessed 31 January 2020).

Herring SC, Christidis N, Hoell A et al. (2018) Explaining extreme events of 2016 from a climate perspective. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99(1): special supplement.

Malmquist D (2018) Researchers issue first-annual sea-level report cards. Available at: (accessed 31 January 2020).

NASA (2019) Annual Arctic sea ice minimum 1979–2019 with area graph. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

Packham C, Barkham P and MacFarlane R (eds) (2018) A peoples manifesto for wildlife. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2020). (2018) The sorry state of Earth’s species, in numbers. Available at: (accessed 31 January 2020).

UNICEF (2019) Child health experts warn air pollution is damaging children’s health. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2020).

Wray-Davis L (2020) Email to Elena Lengthorn, 3 February 2020.

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