From education to employment

The real dangers of soaring energy bills and rising operational costs for schools

With schools reopening for the autumn term across the UK, many educational institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place, as they face difficult months ahead in dealing with rising energy and food prices. A breakdown by the House of Commons Library revealed that school gas and electricity prices increased by 83% in the first three months of 2022. Energy bills are forecast to triple and schools are already paying a lot more for utilities as compared to last year.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Liz Truss, recently announced a six-month support package for schools as a stop-gap intervention to the challenge but many heads worry about a long-term solution beyond that period.

In July, the government’s approval of a 5-8.5% pay increase for teachers was a big win. However, without providing additional funding to cover the pay increment coupled with the upsurge in the cost of living, school heads are being compelled to squeeze budgets significantly. 

The changes schools may be forced to make in order to balance their budgets include staff cuts (especially teaching assistants), scrapping study trips, freezing development projects, and more alarmingly, scaling back on interventions that specifically support disadvantaged pupils – many of whom are still getting back on track from the lost learning experienced during the Covid pandemic.

New data released by the DfE indicates that the attainment gap by the end of Year 6 is at its widest since 2012. Nationally, 59% of pupils attained the expected standards in SATs, down from 65% in pre-pandemic 2019. Disadvantaged pupils make up one-third of those taking SATs and only 43% of them met the attainment target as compared to 65% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

This is a deeply worrying statistic and shows why evidence-based interventions, such as quality tutoring, need to be scaled up, now more than ever. Otherwise, the effects of the pandemic on children and young people, which have only increased inequality, risk playing out in our society for many years to come. 

The NTP and specifically tutoring targeted at improving the academic progress of disadvantaged children may well suffer setbacks owing to the rising operational costs of schools. Grants from the National Tutoring Programme are likely not enough for schools to keep tutoring afloat, even more, assure its sustainability over the academic year.

The government provides 60% of the cost of tutoring while schools are required to generate the remaining 40% – another stressor on school budgets. With that subsidy set to drop to 25% in 2023-24 the future of the NTP surely hangs even more in the balance. 

Founder and CEO of Action Tutoring, Susannah Hardyman, believes there is a looming crisis in schools for pupils facing disadvantage if extra support and investment are not made available by the Government.

“There is a significant danger that funding allocation for valuable interventions for disadvantaged pupils will get removed from school budgets as essential costs continue to rise. Now is not the time for schools to have to cut staff or scale down on interventions like tutoring for disadvantaged children,” she said. “Narrowing the widening attainment gap amid Covid recovery efforts should be a key priority for the Government.”

The rocketing cost of school energy bills and operational expenses come after tough times for millions of students in recent years. The pandemic led to school closures and lost learning time, exacerbating the attainment gap and worsening the mental health of pupils. Schools were also hit with per-pupil funding reduction, with those in poorer communities suffering the most and making it one of the largest cuts to school funding in decades.

Some Heads fear hunger may be one of the biggest challenges for schools as spiralling energy costs put them in a precarious funding situation. There are widespread calls for universal free school meals across the UK to include the over 800,000 children in poverty who aren’t eligible, as more pupils turn up for classes hungry.

With winter approaching, there are growing suggestions that schools act as warmth havens for people unable to afford to heat their homes. However, that may face setbacks if energy costs continue to rise and schools are unable to cope. Action Tutoring believes that immediate intervention is essential to protect schools from the impact of rising costs. Susannah said:

Failure to shield schools from the effect of these unfavourable moments may have far-reaching effects on young people, especially those facing disadvantage, for many years to come. Not only will this be a waste of the potential for their lives, but it will have long-term consequences for the wider society too.”

Related Articles