The Ghost of Education Future

Written by: Helen Osgood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With pupils learning in freezing classrooms and some schools even considering four-day weeks due to rising energy prices and soaring inflation, Helen Osgood draws comparisons with Victorian-era Britain

“When a cold wind blows it chills you, chills you to the bone!”

No, this is not feedback from members regarding the heating and ventilation policy in their school this autumn and winter. In fact, it is the opening line of the first song in the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol!

Christmas should be a time of bright lights, gifts, singing, heart-warming movies about love and redemption, but this year there will be a significant undercurrent of fear, pain and panic.

We heard recently yet more evidence that many schools in England are considering cutting teaching hours, teachers or teaching assistants to save money.

Costs have risen exponentially across the board with little additional funding being made available to cover them; and what additional funding there is has been immediately swallowed up by the rising cost of resources, energy, and staff wages.

And next year, funding is forecast to increase by less than 1% for 37% of England’s primary schools. If nothing is done, schools will have no choice but to increase class sizes, cut subjects from the curriculum, cut or reduce support services, or cut staffing levels.

So, those bright lights, Christmas plays and carol services? Gone.

Job security? Blowing out of the open window.

And when that cold wind blows, it’s going to be cold!

Ebeneezer Scrooge was a cold-hearted husk of a man who “carried his own low temperature always about with him". The outlook for schools and colleges over the coming months is similarly cold, with staff and pupils carrying their own low temperature around as they freeze in their classrooms.

A lack of Department for Education support for improving ventilation in schools does not help. Schools continue with the practice of keeping windows open because there is no other suitable ventilation.

There were trials of air purification systems in Bradford, but what has happened since? Where are the improvements in air circulation? Where is the air conditioning for those classrooms with no windows? What happened to the roll-out of air purification?

Research from New York University in 2020 revealed a significant boost to reading and maths achievement following the installation of air purification (Gilraine, 2020). A gas leak in Los Angeles prompted the action, but the findings suggest that clean air has educational benefits as well as an environmental impact.

Improving air quality helped “bolster school improvement efforts for disadvantaged students who often live in more polluted areas and attend class in older buildings”.

By the end of the school year, in schools that received the new air filters, students’ health had improved, and their achievement had improved by .18 of a standard deviation in reading and .2 of a standard deviation in maths, compared to students’ performance in the schools that did not receive air filters.

Michael Gilraine, study author and assistant professor of economics at New York University, states: “Given the large test-score increases they generate, installing air filters substantially outperforms other education reforms such as class-size reduction on a cost-benefit basis.” (See Sparks, 2020)

And yet, here we are, three years later in classrooms sometimes so cold that the ink in Mr Scrooge’s office would freeze. One parent told us: “It is crazy that my child has to learn in an environment where she is cold and the wind is blowing through the room all day.”

It seems we are heading back to the dark days of Victorian Britain since the cost of energy continues to be at an all-time high and school leaders are saying that they cannot afford heating and staffing if something is not done soon.

And while there is some relief for those on mains gas and electricity, bear a thought for those rural schools on oil and wood-chip burners which have seen their bills skyrocket by as much as 200% without any government support.

But what can be done? In the film, Bob Cratchit has to persuade Mr Scrooge to close the office for Christmas Day, saying: "It will save a lot of expensive coal for the fire."

This is no joke for some schools. A recent survey of school leaders found that 17 of 630 schools are considering a four-day week. And if this comes to pass, it will mean the rise once again of virtual teaching and learning. This will increase families’ household bills and we would expect there to be recompense for staff who are required to work from home on those days to cover their extra utilities costs.

And what about the children who will once again be disadvantaged by home learning? What about those who will be placed at risk by being at home all day? And what impact will this have on the economy, if parents have to take time off work to ensure their children are looked after?

This must not be allowed to happen in 21st century Britain. Community members are already writing to their MPs and elected councillors and making their expectations clear. But we need the government to sit up, take notice and do something –and it needs to be done now.

Merry Christmas? “Bah, Humbug”!

  • Helen Osgood is national officer for education and early years at Community.


Further information & resources

  • Gilraine: The importance of clean air in classrooms: During the pandemic and beyond, Brookings Institution, October 2020: http://bit.ly/3UOPvzy
  • Sparks: Air Filters: A potential tool to boost learning? Education Week, February 2020: http://bit.ly/3O1re7c


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