'A sticking plaster' – DfE's £500m energy efficiencies fund not enough

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is “deep concern” among school leaders that the government has already decided to end the energy relief scheme in March leaving schools exposed to huge hikes in their bills.

News that the government is to invest £500m to help schools and colleges “futureproof” themselves with “energy efficiency upgrades” has been welcomed – but there is an underlying fear at what lies ahead.

Responding to the Department for Education announcement this week (DfE, 2022a), the Association of School and Coll̀ege Leaders (ASCL) and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it would do nothing to address the current crisis.

Further criticism has come from the national Let’s Go Zero initiative which is campaigning for all schools to be carbon-neutral by 2030. It labelled the £500m investment as a “sticking plaster”.

Under the scheme, the DfE’s estimations show that, on average, a primary school will receive approximately £16,000 while a secondary school will get £42,000.

It says that improvements could include installing better heating controls, insulation to reduce heat loss from pipes, or switching to energy efficient lighting.

The DfE also published guidance (DfE, 2022b) to help schools maximise energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and improve “sustainability and resilience”.

The Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme is also investing £1.4bn in public sector buildings, including schools, over the next three financial years, the DfE says.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said: “It is important to look at the things we can do to make classrooms more energy efficient and resilient to price fluctuations. We’re putting this cash in the hands of school and college leaders quickly, so they can decide what work is needed and so that our brilliant teachers can focus on teaching in a warm and safe environment.”

However, Alex Green, programme manager at Let’s Go Zero, which advises and supports schools to reduce their carbon emissions, said: “This is merely a sticking plaster when a long-term solution is desperately needed. If this money is used wisely, it can help schools lower their bills, and make their buildings more energy efficient. But to really solve the problem of money and carbon emissions leaking from schools and colleges every day, we need the government to commit to adapting and retrofitting every school in the UK. This will futureproof schools and colleges once and for all.”

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said the investment, while welcome, would “not pay energy bills in the immediate future”.

He added: “We are deeply concerned that the government intends to end the energy relief scheme that is currently in place to help schools and colleges meet rising costs at the end of March.

“Removing this support will expose them to massive increases in energy bills that are simply unaffordable, and this will necessitate cuts in educational provision. Funding for energy efficiency upgrades is a longer term undertaking and will not address the present crisis.”

His counterpart at the NAHT, Paul Whiteman, added: "Schools will continue to face rapidly rising energy bills and we know many are worried about what will happen when the current support package for bills expires. We would urge the government to make this the start of a sustained, long-term commitment to improving the energy efficiency of the school estate."

The Energy Bill Relief Scheme (DBEI, 2022) is giving non-domestic customers, including schools and colleges, a discount on wholesale gas and electricity prices for six months from October 1 to March 31, with the relief being applied to bills automatically. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said in his Autumn Statement that the scheme is to be reviewed and it is widely expected that it will be discontinued.

Elsewhere this week, the DfE has also confirmed that of the extra £2bn given to schools in November’s Autumn Statement, £400m will go local councils for the high needs block to support children and young people with SEND.

The DfE calculates that average funding per-pupil for mainstream schools will increase by “approximately 5% overall in the next financial year compared to 2022/23”.

The government has previously said that the £2bn investment will provide an average cash increase for every pupil of more than £1,000 by 2024/25, compared to 2021/22.

However, as ASCL’s funding specialist Julia Harnden, in an analysis of the Autumn Statement’s implications for schools, published in Headteacher Update earlier this week, said: “This is a high-level assumption that considers the total core schools’ budget and the total pupil population. It is not an increase that you are likely to see in your per-pupil allocation at individual school level.” (Harnden, 2022)

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