Systems and sustainability in schools

17th May 2010

Systems and sustainability

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Public sector ,
  • Education ,
  • Sustainability



The indirect impacts of a given process are not always considered; catering in sustainable schools is an interesting case in point say Mark Lemon, Fiona Charnley and Andy Wright.

Building schools for the Future (BSF) aims to use building design to support 21st Century education. During its 15 year lifespan, the programme will rebuild and renew nearly every state secondary school in England, making it the biggest investment in schools, within England, for more than a century. The programme is a key part of the Government's plans for education reform and the key driver and measure of its success will be the impact that the new schools have on teaching and learning transformation and how they contribute to an improved standard of education.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has identified the need to approach this complex challenge holistically by highlighting a framework comprising eight ‘sustainability' doorways . They suggest that a common idea that runs through each of these issues is the need for a long-term, joined-up approach to securing the future for all of our children.

However, it is not clear how the framework is to be implemented within the context of individual schools and what tools and techniques are available to apply the framework to the unique challenges that a school may face. Furthermore, it appears that when looking systemically at the sustainability doorways, in terms of their interactions, potential problems and contradictions will emerge. For example if we take a specific issue relating to sustainable schools - the role of on-site catering - we can quickly identify some of these potential ‘conflicts' without stepping outside of the eight gateways model.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Potential sustainability conflicts

Figure 2 presents a potential conflict that might arise from the co-existence of two distinct perspectives; one focuses on the need to restrict energy use on-site with the related benefits of a smaller carbon footprint and energy and financial savings.

The pursuit of this approach might argue against on-site catering. Alternatively, by focusing on community engagement an argument could be made for on-site catering using local produce and staff with a corresponding reduction in overall carbon through decreased transportation costs for the food. Two different perspectives could be driven by the pursuit of carbon reduction but with contradictory decisions.

This can be explained in part by the perspectives adopted (for reduced on site energy use or for community engagement) but also by the geographical and organisational boundaries of the problem by each perspective.

For example, the argument for in-school catering might look at the problem according to the benefits to the local community and the carbon footprint of the catering supply chain.

The argument against such catering may define the problem as stopping at the school gates with the community and supply chain issues being seen as secondary to on-site energy consumption.

Identifying how (eg through a particular perspective) and where (eg by geographical, organisational or process location) a problem can be given boundaries provides one example of how conceptual devices can help us understand a problem's context and the way that it is framed.

When we are trying to make sense of unique situations the role of conceptual devices can be invaluable both for understanding that situation and for contributing to the development of theory that can then be drawn upon in new contexts or the same context over time. In addition to the identification of clear boundary conditions we will briefly consider two related conceptual devices in the context of the catering example.


The concept of feedback is fundamental to systems thinking which involves thinking in loops rather than straight lines. The parts of a system are connected directly or indirectly and as such changes in one part will affect change elsewhere which in turn can affect the original state. Such feedback can take the following forms:

  • reinforcing (positive) - when the changes in the whole system amplify the original change; or
  • balancing (negative) - when the changes in the whole system oppose and dampen an effect.

If we focus on the latter then the reduction of in-house (ie stops at the school gates) energy consumption as a result of external catering will indeed reduce the local carbon footprint and the associated costs and vice versa.

We are defining the system by local energy use criteria; however, that decision may lead to higher overall energy consumption when we look at the complete life cycle and carbon footprint of the catering process (positive feedback).

This exemplifies a second conceptual device that might help us understand the sustainability implications of a particular decision: the rebound effect. This is the tendency for a strategy designed to promote energy savings to encourage behaviours that to a greater or lesser extent result in increased energy usage overall.

Figure 3

Figure 3: The catering driven rebound effect

Figure 3 suggests that if we limit our analysis of a sustainable school according to the energy consumed on site we might be less likely to have on site catering, albeit with the community and health benefits mentioned above. By reducing our energy consumption, and of course labour and capital costs, financial savings can be made.

The decision about what to do with such savings is interesting in that by focusing on another doorway, eg inclusion and participation, the school may invest in equipment such as IT for community use.

This would have energy implications both through the hours that the school might now be open and the requirements of the computers for community education. The extended access to the school may also, ironically, increase the viability of on-site catering.

As this example shows, when we fail to adequately think through how different processes and interventions interconnect we will leave ourselves open to unsustainable futures. While there are many reasons for segmenting problems (disciplinary expertise, cost centres, political priorities etc) there is the need to teach about systems (as interacting processes) in a systematic (structured and reproducible) way.

While the ability to think systemically is the underlying feature of this approach, it needs to be introduced alongside a series of cross-cutting skills such as a willingness to represent complex phenomena diagrammatically and to ‘empathise' with different stakeholders and the perspectives that constitute their approach to a problem.

There are also a number of conceptual devices that can help with this dynamic and iterative approach to learning about (un)sustainability and it is the combination of this systemic approach, core skills and conceptual devices that can support the generation of potential futures from which we can learn about what might be unsustainable and make informed suggestions about measures to avoid them.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Majority of environmental professionals fear green skills gap

Almost three-fifths of UK environmental professionals feel there is a green skills gap across the country’s workforce, or that there will be, a new survey has uncovered.

4th July 2024

Read more

Climate hazards such as flooding, droughts and extreme heat are threatening eight in 10 of the world’s cities, new research from CDP has uncovered.

3rd July 2024

Read more

Three in five British adults want more public involvement in the planning system, which could be at odds with Labour’s plans to boost economic growth, IEMA research has found.

3rd July 2024

Read more

Ahead of the UK general election next month, IEMA has analysed the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green Party manifestos in relation to the sustainability agenda.

19th June 2024

Read more

Nine in 10 UK adults do not fully trust brands to accurately portray their climate commitments or follow the science all the time, a new survey has uncovered.

19th June 2024

Read more

Just one in 20 workers aged 27 and under have the skills needed to help drive the net-zero transition, compared with one in eight of the workforce as a whole, new LinkedIn data suggests.

18th June 2024

Read more

Consumers are flexing their purchasing power in support of more sustainable products and services. Dr Andrew Coburn, CEO of sustainability intelligence and analytics firm, Risilience, considers the risk of greenwashing and sets out three key steps businesses can take to avoid the pitfalls and meet the opportunities of changing consumer demand.

18th June 2024

Read more

With a Taskforce on Inequality and Social-related Financial Disclosures in the pipeline, Beth Knight talks to Chris Seekings about increased recognition of social sustainability

6th June 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close