School leaders warn of 'deafening silence' from government as they face crippling energy bills

Credit: PA

By Content Producer Amani Hughes

School leaders have warned of a “deafening silence” from government ahead of the new term, as crippling energy bills threaten a mountain of debt and a "tsunami of heartbreak" for families.

A leader of a multi-academy trust that covers 18 schools told ITV News he faces an increase of £1 million on utility costs – a rise of 300% - which represents around 10% of funding per child for energy costs alone, previously it was 1%. “The predictions for next year are an additional £600,000 on top of that, and so we are looking in a two to three year period of rises that are close to 500%,” Dan Morrow, trust leader for Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust said. Another headteacher said his surplus of £50,000 will be wiped out by the predicted increase in energy bills, and his school could be in a deficit of £40,000 by April, not including the price rises to food. The CEO of Ridgeway Education Trust in Oxfordshire, covering two secondary schools and one primary school, said her gas bills are due to rise by 525% in October and her electricity by 354%. Rachael Warwick added: “The Trust currently spends £250,000 on gas and electricity each year and this will increase £900k to £1.150million each year on the new contracts and assuming usual usage levels.” Some schools have been looking at cutting support staff, but Dr Paul Gosling, headteacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School and president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the problem is too big for schools to deal with and the government needs to intervene.

Headteacher Paul Gosling said the government needed to intervene and help support schools. Credit: Handout

“There’s nothing that we could practically do with the scale of the problem, it’s not about tweaking things here or there, we don’t want to turn the heating off, children will be particularly cold after Christmas time,” he said. “I don’t think the problem’s ours; the problem is the government's. They need to do something about this, this is a national problem that needs sorting out at that level.” Mr Morrow said: “It is unbelievable that we find ourselves in a position as a wealthy, first world country. We’re looking at how do we ensure that all the computers are off, lights are off, how are we efficient?

“It’ll make a difference, but it is not going to make the difference…we face what is a perfect storm of difficulties and issues that put pressure on school budgets at a time when we should be extending our services. “We need to get back to business as usual, but this is not business as usual. This is business at the cost of children.”

The academy trust leader said he can protect frontline staff and won’t reduce heating, but he’s having to look at cutting extended services, such as school trips and visits, and counselling for students – support that was fundamental during lockdown. Mr Morrow added: “The last thing we ever want to do in education, because of our sense of vocation and our sense of absolutely wanting to be the stewards and the support for our children and communities, how are we able to say, I'm sorry, but we don't have the budget to help you here?”

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Headteachers agree that an energy price cap should be introduced for schools. At the moment the cap only applies to residential homes, not commercial buildings. Schools are also having to contend with making their budgets stretch to accommodate the 5% pay rise awarded to experienced teachers from September. CEO of Ridgeway Education Trust Ms Warwick said it “represents an additional £300,000 per year for our Trust”.

A recruitment freeze is how some schools are dealing with the impending cost of living crisis, and looking at posts that are not currently filled and deleting them.

CEO of Ridgeway Education Trust Rachael Warwick said the energy bill rises will wipe out her reserves of around £1 million. Credit: Twitter

NAHT president Dr Gosling said he has heard of a colleague who is identifying lightbulbs that can be taken out, but the main expense is not lighting but heating air. “If schools have got spare spaces that they heat unnecessarily, they could look at that, but I don’t know many schools that have unnecessary spaces that aren’t needed for certain areas of the curriculum,” he said. “We are all just hoping that it will be a mild winter.” He added: “I know headteachers who are not sleeping well at the moment, because they are worrying about what they can possibly do.” Schools, as demonstrated by the pandemic, were vital support hubs for parents and continue to be that “safety net” in tough times and “the first port of call in a storm”.

Dan Morrow said he is looking at cutting extended services, such as school trips and visits, and counselling for students. Credit: Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust

Mr Morrow, CEO of Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust, said he’s having to talk to parents who can’t make ends meet, and “they’ve faced a summer of saying no to this treat or that trip”. He added: “It’s a tsunami of heartbreak.” “We have spent the last few years with the Covid pandemic and lockdown working tirelessly to ensure that we give what we need to give. I’ve been a senior leader for well over a decade, and this is the most worried I have ever been and it is absolutely costing sleep,” Mr Morrow said. “The toll of human misery that is presented to us as school leaders against the backdrop of knowing that we are able to do less, though we’re called upon to do even more, is heartbreaking. “I find is just frightening, terrifying and in the worst possible way, remarkable that we seem to have deprioritised the young people who make up our country, who will be learning and working to support us all in the future, in a race to the bottom. “It isn’t one that I think any of us foresaw and yet the absolute silence [from government] is deafening.” A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are aware of the inflationary pressures facing schools and know that rising costs will impact schools differently.

“To support schools, we are increasing core funding by £4 billion this year alone and are also providing schools with tools to help them get the best value for money from their resources, including recommended deals for energy costs and services related to energy.”