The principal at one of Northern Ireland’s top grammar schools has urged Stormont to ensure that any extra money schools need to spend on heating costs does not take away from the education of pupils.
After the Belfast Telegraph revealed the soaring cost of energy bills could eat up £16m from the education budget by the end of this financial year, Lurgan College head Trevor Robinson said the money for extra heat when schools are being advised to keep windows open should not come at the expense of books, equipment and teachers.
With a main building over 150 years old, and windows in many classes still single glazed, Mr Robinson admitted maintaining a reasonable temperature in classrooms is a challenge.
“We can’t really put a figure on what the extra heating will cost yet,” he said. “But we have to have it on.
“There’s only so much we can do. We are in a listed building, so we can’t just go and make any changes without the necessary permission.
“Thankfully since we came back from the Christmas break, the temperatures haven’t dropped too far, but it’s not right that we’re sitting hoping for a mild winter, so we can afford the other things pupils need for their education.
“It’s that old economic adage, if you use your money for one thing, you can’t pay for something else.”
Rising heating costs have come at the worst possible time for schools, in the middle of winter with all being urged to open windows whenever possible to keep classrooms ventilated.
Mr Robinson said the school’s uniform policy has been eased to allow pupils to keep warm.
“We’ve relaxed the policy,” he said. “It does get quite cold, so we won’t be expecting pupils to sit and shiver. They can wear extra fleeces and to be fair to the pupils, they’ve all stuck to the grey and blues of the normal uniform.
“We have been supplied with CO2 monitors by the EA, though not enough for every classroom. We’ve tried to identify where the biggest risks are, but even then it depends on how many pupils are in the classroom.”
There have also been calls for the Department of Education to provide HEPA air filtration systems for all classrooms.
Earlier this week, an estimated cost of providing the filters was put at around £40m, but Mr Robinson isn’t convinced it would be money well spent at this stage.
“It’s not going to be a solution to the heating problems. Just because an air filter is in a classroom doesn’t mean the windows don’t need to be opened. They rely on the flow of air to work properly. Of course anything that helps with the safety of children in our schools is to be welcomed, but let’s not get carried away thinking filters will cure all ills and I think that’s a point some people calling for them need to bear in mind.”
Electricity and gas prices have been increasing dramatically in the last year, some rising by as much as 50%.
According to Department of Education projections, the additional cost to the department’s budget due to rising energy prices over the course of the 2021/22 financial year is £5.8m, and £9.8m in 2022/23.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “Recent increases in energy costs are likely to result in increased utility bills for schools, although I expect that the additional £95.1m allocated to schools this year via the Aggregated Schools Budget will help to mitigate the impact of this at individual school level in the current year.”
Mr Robinson said that though schools have been provided with extra Covid funding to help them through the pandemic, the energy costs is now an additional financial burden.
“The Covid money was welcome, of course, but much of that has to go on providing substitute teachers to make sure our schools stay open safely,” he said.
“Pupils need to be comfortable in school, and that means paying for the heating. We won’t know the extent until the bills come in, but let’s not rely on the weather to help us out.
"All schools have tried to be sensible where the extra funds have been spent, but the rise in heating will come at a cost elsewhere in the school community unless there is some further financial assistance directed towards the added expenditure we’re all going to be facing.”