By Alex Green, Programme Manager (Awards and Schools)

The winter term is almost over, but the coldest months of the year are still ahead - and come January many schools will be cranking up the heating. As in any shared building with lots of users, school heating choices can quickly become a battleground issue. So how do schools keep teachers and pupils happy and comfortable, while limiting carbon emissions and keeping bills as low as possible?

We’re working with the Department for Education to develop new energy use guidance and support for schools – including tips on cutting heating bills. But in the meantime, here are some straightforward tips for school leaders to help staff find the right balance.

How warm should rooms be?

Remember, one size doesn’t fit all. People will be more or less active in different rooms – and the temperature in different rooms should be set to reflect this.

So, in a classroom with 30 active children, generating heat as they move around, a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius is fine. But school offices – where people will be moving around less – should be set to 21 degrees. Sports halls, corridors and toilets can be kept at 16 degrees.

Communicate with staff – and show them you’re following the plan

Everyone has an opinion about how warm rooms should be. But let staff know that there is an agreed policy for school heating, overseen by the building manager, designed to protect budgets and tackle climate change.

Basic thermometers for individual classrooms cost pennies – using them will confirm the system is working correctly, and that rooms are being heated to an agreed level. Remember that changes to buildings will affect how much they retain heat. After repairs, upgrades or additions, check to see if the heating needs to be adjusted too. 

Make savings at the start and end of the day

Cutting the time heating is on by just an hour – or even 30 minutes – can save thousands of pounds over the course of a year.

Classrooms that have been heated all day will retain their heat for the last hour, and cleaners probably won’t want the heating on full blast as they move around classrooms. The handful of staff who arrive extra early might need to rely on cups of tea and jumpers until their colleagues arrive, but heating an entire school for the benefit of a few people is bad news for school finances and the planet.

Make sure the heating’s not going on too early in the autumn, and as temperatures start to climb in spring, check that you don’t have the heating on unnecessarily. If your school currently has the heating on for 16 weeks a year, shaving a week off either end of that period would create a 12.5% saving in emissions and fuel costs.

Think about other ways to keep warm

Cranking up the heating is just one way of keeping warm. Make sure your school is using every trick in the book to stay cosy. 

Important steps include insulating walls, ceilings and pipes to retain heat. If you convince students and staff that saving energy is a whole-school effort, they can help fix the everyday issues around the school. Launch a school eco-club – where students get involved in saving energy by turning off lights and computers, and making sure outside doors are closed. It will help tackle the problem and creates great learning opportunities about tackling climate change.

Even simple things that take seconds, such as closing windows to trap heat where it’s needed, make a big difference. And everyone can try and prevent the crazy contradictions that drive up energy use – like air conditioning to cool down rooms, instead of turning down the heating. 

Schools of the future

How else might our schools cut heating use in the years ahead, as the country aims to reach net zero carbon emissions?

Smart software and artificial intelligence is already helping homes and businesses improve their heating efficiency, by monitoring energy use in precise detail – and even using data from other buildings to predict fixes and improvements. The initial cost of these systems might put cash-strapped schools off, but they can deliver huge savings.

New schools should embrace passive design, a method that creates buildings needing very little, if not no heating or cooling. It’s not just the preserve of expensive homes and offices – a council housing project in Norwich that uses passive design has just the Stirling Prize, the UK’s top architecture award. But given the age of many school buildings, the answer might be adopting retrofit techniques that bring old buildings up to scratch.

Investment can create huge carbon and cash savings. When Home Farm Primary School in Essex enclosed its central courtyard and installed a new building management system, gas use dropped by an astonishing 94%.

But progress is possible without large-scale building work. At South Farnborough Infant School in Hampshire, a new gas boiler and energy saving initiatives cut gas consumption by 24%. The school was part of the LESS CO2 programme, which helps schools identify cheap or free ways to cut emissions and lower bills. 

The scheme reveals the simple ways that any school lower emissions and bills while creating a happy learning environment.

This feature first appeared in Education Business.

  • Want to find out more about energy saving in schools? Explore Ashden’s LESS CO2 programme.