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Schools in England warn of teaching staff cuts as energy costs bite

Bethan Staton in London JULY 12 2022, Financial Times

Building and maintenance budgets also threatened as gas and electricity bills rise by 83% in one year

One school says 'We've had conversations about making redundancies, about children being in classrooms with their coats on'© Jane Barlow/PA

Schools in England have warned that they will be forced to cut back spending on building projects, maintenance and even teaching staff as energy costs continue to spiral.

An analysis by the House of Commons Library estimated that school energy bills rose by as much as 83 per cent in the first three months of this year compared to 2020-21.

The fresh concerns come as teaching unions threaten strike action over a longstanding pay dispute, and after inflation hit 9.1 Percent in May driven by rising food and fuel prices.

Separate survey: results by the National Association of Head Teachers in April showed that one-third of school leaders anticipated a budget deficit as a direct result of rising energy costs, which could lead to cuts in teaching, maintenance and equipment budgets.

Rachael Warwick, executive headteacher of Ridgeway Education Trust, a partnership of four schools in Oxfordshire, said its decision to sign a 24-month energy contract would increase gas costs by 257 per cent and electricity costs by 185 per cent.

"This creates an additional unbudgeted £1mn expenditure over the next three years which will see us, for the first time ever, returning in-year deficits," she said.

Rising bills have meant that schools have already been forced to cut back on building projects to make savings, as financial reserves are eroded to a "perilously low level", Warwick added.

"If the situation continues into the medium term we will inevitably have to look at the staffing structure with potential impact on the quality of education offered to our young people," she said.

Des MacPhee, business manager for Norton College in Yorkshire, said that based on recent invoices, gas costs had risen by more than 400 per cent in the past year, adding that further rises would leave the college struggling to fix its crumbling buildings.

"We've had conversations about making redundancies, about children being in classrooms with their coats on. We don't think this is acceptable but if this keeps going, this is realistic," he said.

The House of Commons analysis, using data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was based on weighted gas and electricity use. It showed prices for small and medium-sized companies, with roughly similar energy needs to schools.

Labour's shadow minister for schools, Stephen Morgan, who commissioned the research, said the government's "failure to get a grip" on spiralling energy prices is

"leaving schools struggling to keep the lights on".

"School budgets are already stretched to breaking point," he said. "Ministers must set out their plans to support schools and ensure rising costs do not lead to further disruption."

In addition to mounting energy bills, the education sector is facing the prospect of strike action atter teaching unions called on the government tor a wage increase ot 11. 7_ner cent.

The Department for Education said cost increases should be "seen in the context" of a £4bn increase in school funding, equivalent to 7 per cent per pupil in cash terms.

"This will help schools to meet wider cost pressures, including energy prices," the department said. "We know schools are facing cost pressures, in particular rising energy bills, and we are considering what further support we can provide to schools to reduce these."

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