Teach First Achievement Partner Andrew Bygrave
Andrew Bygrave
Achievement Partner at Teach First

How will the energy crisis affect schools?

Faced with rising energy prices, schools are bracing themselves for considerable financial impact. Achievement Partner Andy works closely with our partner schools to develop their leadership teams; here he shares the challenges they are expected to face in the upcoming year.

Rising energy prices are set to put many households in incredibly difficult situations. Many will see their incomes squeezed, with some families making the unthinkable choice of whether to ‘eat or heat’ in the colder months.

Schools will feel the impact too—especially those serving disadvantaged communities. This is going to be on the forefront of the minds of school leaders, who are already exhausted from adjusting to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has already had an impact on school finances: the need for increased ventilation has found schools facing a rise in energy bills in Spring. Some have seen their energy rating fall as a knock-on effect too. So, to add even further price increases on top of this is going to only worsen the situation.

New survey data from the school leaders' union NAHT found that one in six headteachers expect their energy bills to treble over the next year; which they expect to cause cuts to support staff spending, maintenance and school equipment. The survey also suggested that 99% of headteachers were expecting their schools’ energy costs to increase over the next year.

School leaders always plan with great care to make sure public money is allocated in the areas that are going to have the most impact on pupils’ outcomes (in both the long and short term). During the pandemic we have seen schools make best use of the limited reserves they have to overcome the unexpected costs of COVID-19 on budgets. Working closely with the school finance team means that under or overspending is recognised, and appropriate action taken. Even in the troubling circumstances of a pandemic, sound financial management has helped school leaders have confidence that they can back actions with money.

However, for many schools there will be a growing need for extra finance to support heating and energy requirements. The scale of these cost increases could not have been foreseen and budgeted for, even if existing reserves had been available – making this crisis particularly difficult to manage.

The Department for Education has warned schools to not let their existing energy contracts expire, as buying out of contract would prove more expensive. This comes as the government recently closed its school switch service, which enabled schools and academies to acquire bespoke energy supply costs.

The energy crisis looms

In recent conversations with school business managers, it has not taken long for leaders to acknowledge the impact of the rise in energy prices. Business Manager Nicky Tomlinson at Da Vinci Academy, one of Teach First’s partner schools, told us that they are budgeting for a 65% increase in electricity and gas in the next academic year. This will push energy costs above £100K, impact financial planning and put pressure on recommended levels of reserves – pressure which is projected to impact pupils. For instance, planned capital projects may have to be put on hold, further limiting the school’s ambitions for development.

Schools at the heart of community

During the pandemic, schools provided an excellent example of how they are more than just a place of learning. Their work to support vulnerable families with food and support during lockdowns clearly demonstrated their place at the heart of the community.

Rising energy prices will again mean that some schools serving disadvantaged communities will have to call on their pastoral teams to make sure that children are being fed, and possibly clothed, as families struggle to pay energy bills during the winter months. Stocks of food and clean clothing for struggling families may become more widespread across schools.

Safeguarding is always a priority for schools. Adults working with young people will need to keep an eye open to monitor those families that are likely to need our support.

How the energy crisis may affect teacher recruitment and retention

For some schools, the rise in energy costs may mean making staffing decisions more on cost than on achieving an appropriate balance of experience. Or it may result in a narrower curriculum offer than desired or reduction in extra-curricular activities due to the difficulties of staffing them. At the most extreme, it could mean redundancies. All of which affect the quality of teaching received by pupils.

Attracting and retaining the best teachers and support staff is fundamental to improving outcomes for pupils. Schools may find that in order to attract staff to schools that are aiming to improve they will have to offer higher starting salaries. Alternatively, schools may choose not to replace those that leave.

A big concern is how this will affect attractiveness of the teaching profession as the cost-of-living increase goes on. Will schools struggle to attract support staff as alternative employers find it easier to afford rising energy prices? Will prospective teachers be swayed to join another field or profession in order to acquire higher salaries to support themselves? There’s a lot that the education community needs to monitor closely and consider in these difficult times.

How costs will impact schools

Rising costs are predicted to also impact schools’ ability to operate, especially if it means making cuts to services in order to save money. Line managers will have to remind school budget holders that spending must be monitored more closely to prevent overspend on non-energy related supplies (such as books or ICT).

This is also set to affect continuous professional development (CPD) opportunities for staff. Furthermore, collaboration opportunities between schools may become more limited, with visits becoming less frequent – shrinking the size and scope of networks and the wider education community.

Leading Together is a Teach First leadership programme that places collaboration at the core of its support. Through our practice, we’ve learned that online collaboration can only go so far. Face-to- face contact and school visits deepen professional learning and strengthens links that can strategically raise pupil outcomes. Yet can schools really afford to increase their milage rates to cover the rise in fuel costs?

Looking ahead

So in the face of such challenges, what can schools do to soften the blow? Planning for the energy cost increase should involve Trusts or Governors at the earliest stage possible, so that they are able to offer support and guidance. Additionally, moving forward it might be necessary to widen the level of awareness across the whole school community of the knock-on effects of rising energy prices, so that everyone is prepared for when they hit.

With no planned real increases in school funding on the horizon, it is likely to be another challenging year for schools.

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