Old school building

Retrofitting schools

Retrofitting school buildings is not a quick fix to current high energy bills but in the longer term can cut carbon emissions and enable schools to make much-needed savings.

Simple adaptations to education buildings can help meet climate targets, make buildings more resilient to climate change, more energy efficient and healthier places to work and learn.

This TUC report notes that even relatively newly built classrooms overheat up to 40 per cent of the time.

This advice offers help to school and college leaders adapting education buildings to the double threat of the climate emergency and rising energy costs. It can also be used by NEU workplace reps and health and safety reps to raise the issue of upgrades to education buildings with leaders and employers.

What is retrofitting?

Retrofitting refers to structural changes to buildings to improve energy efficiency and resilience to the effects of climate change.  Retrofitting school buildings is not a quick fix to current high energy bills but in the longer term can cut carbon emissions and enable schools to make much-needed savings.

Retrofitting ranges from double glazing and wall insulation, to more advanced green technologies like heat pumps and solar panels, that will save carbon and money in the long term.

In the short term, some simple steps can help keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer:

  • A pre-heating season boiler service and check of heating and hot water timers
  • Checking that loft insulation is adequate.
  • Making sure that radiators are not covered up
  • Checking that lightbulbs are LED.
  • Repairing leaking gutters and wet walls
  • Checking appliances aren’t left on for long periods when not in use
  • Checking lighting timers for internal and external lights – are lights only used when needed?
  • Closing curtains at dusk in winter
  • Preventing overheating by installing shading to windows. External shading is more effective than internal blinds, though both can help.
  • Planting trees and other green areas outside the building to counteract the ‘heat island’ effect. Shading the playground keeps the tarmac cooler.

Foster a climate amongst staff which encourages the sharing of good ideas.

Why retrofit?

Help reduce carbon emissions

The TUC estimate that retrofitting will save a huge 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions – it’s a crucial step in achieving net zero. And in a context of rapidly rising energy bills it could eventually slash costs.

Provide much needed repairs. Create safer, more inclusive buildings

Retrofitting can also address the dire need for repairs faced by schools across the country – on average £300,000-£700,000 per school according to TUC estimates. This could include asbestos removal, with the potential to mitigate serious threats to health.

More than 80 per cent of educational buildings still contain asbestos. The risk of exposing asbestos must, therefore, be considered before disturbing the fabric of any building.

In some cases, the presence of asbestos makes major structural work impossible and will require a rebuild. Even then, addressing general maintenance issues is still worthwhile.

It is vital that moving towards Net Zero does not compromise safety. The NEU campaigns alongside all the other education unions, to tackle the huge problem of asbestos in schools.

Create a comfortable working and learning environment

As temperatures become more extreme due to the climate crisis, retrofitting can make schools more comfortable and safer.

Effective mechanical ventilation systems can also assist learning since high CO2 levels reduce concentration, while better ventilation and cleaner air means less opportunity for Covid-19 and other viruses to spread.

In cold conditions there are minimum workplace temperatures which must be adhered to. The NEU has further guidance on both high and low temperatures (England / Wales) which can be used to support workers currently struggling with this in schools.

Alongside the other education unions, we have published a joint union heatwave protocol to help prepare for future extreme heat events.

Create valuable learning opportunities

Retrofitting should involve the whole school community.  Today’s generation of pupils will confront the challenges of climate breakdown over the coming decades so engaging with them about solutions visible in their own school environment will offer inspiring learning opportunities.

How can schools and colleges get started?

Despite the urgency of the need to retrofit at scale, support available remains limited and insufficient, an issue over which we will continue to lobby Government.

At present, there are limited options to support schools in becoming more energy efficient. 

The Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme

The Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme provides grants for public sector bodies to fund decarbonisation and energy efficiency measures.

Contact your local authority or employer to find out whether grants are available.

Available funding is limited however. According to the TUC, ‘less than one fortieth of what is needed to future proof our school buildings.’

Government Financing Schemes

Loans have been made available for schools carrying out retrofits but the scale of funding per project is limited, so suitable for small projects not whole-building retrofits.

Local Authority schemes

If your Local Authority does not have anything currently in place, talk to other local schools about making the case about establishing retrofit schemes.

Cambridgeshire County Council supports schools to get access to specialised technical expertise. They also ‘provide loans or manage service arrangements to pay for energy saving measures; drawing down public sector capital from their Local Energy Investment Fund to pay for the works up front.’

Milton C of E Primary in Cambridgeshire had several Energy Conservation Measures installed across its three buildings. After a year saved £16,000 on energy bills, and 45 tonnes of CO2 per annum. The £166,000 project will be paid back over 15 years.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority also sets out finance options in their GMCA RetroFit Action Plan – though signposts the Public Works Loans Board rather than providing its own funding.

Newcastle City Council is working towards Net Zero through tranches of 15 schools at a time, with NEU Newcastle closely involved. Grants are also available from the Office of the North of Tyne Mayor.

City Hall scheme for London schools

London schools can access the Retrofit Accelerator programme as part of a cluster of eight from a particular borough.

The London Borough of Hounslow has achieved success in its retrofitting . So far, 21 schools in the Borough have been retrofitted, with measures including lighting replacements and controls; solar panels; and optimisation and control strategy improvements.

Once the second phase has been completed the project will save 1800 tonnes of CO2 and £350,000 annually.

Further advice

The DfE has Energy Saving guidance for education buildings

Social enterprises

Retrofit Action for Tomorrow, works to engage schools in the process through holding workshops on the importance of energy efficient buildings in tackling the climate emergency and provides advice on how to retrofit schools to reduce carbon emissions and energy usage whilst improving the school environment.

Less CO2

The Less CO2 Campaign is a free energy efficiency programme available to any UK school, enabling schools to work together and learn from each other in clusters of 15 schools over a geographical area. School representatives, both teaching and non-teaching, can attend local workshops on energy saving, and how to teach about the link between sustainability and energy use and efficiency.

Next steps

This guide is very much a work in progress.  If you are aware of other schemes, or would be willing to share any successes, please contact us so we can expand this guide and give others the tools to challenge their employer to do more. 

NEU Climate Network

If you would like to join the NEU Climate Network, which meets online a couple of times a term and shares ideas via email and WhatsApp, please contact us below

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