NEF helping to make better use of £543 million not spent educating UK pupils

Author: 03/12/2014

There are 24,372 schools in the UK which, together, have a total annual energy bill of £543 million – approximately £22,800 per school – roughly equal to the salary of a newly qualified teacher. Part of our challenge is how to use this £543 million most effectively and to maximise the benefits for our nation’s children.

In an age of technology, schools are relying more and more on equipment like SMART boards, laptops, computers, and iPads. The majority of these ‘life-savers’ in the classroom are never or rarely turned off, or are constantly being plugged in to be ready for the next batch of kids eager to get their hands on them. In many cases, they don’t seem particularly user-friendly – relying on controls or systems which can’t be easily changed. Because of all this, you get what you’d expect – energy use and bills steadily increasing, year on year.

But technology is not the only culprit and, despite rising very quickly, actually only takes up about 3% of schools’ energy usage. More important is that many schools call very old buildings home. These buildings may have been built upwards of thirty years ago – with some being Victorian or even older – and are not being upgraded at the same speed that new technologies and methods are created to benefit them. Many are still using ancient heating, lighting, and electrical systems, inadequate by today’s standards. On average, heating a school building accounts for 58% of total energy usage and 48% of the total cost. Lighting is a real robber. It uses about 8% of energy, but costs 20% of a school's energy budget.

Simply put, these buildings were not built with energy efficiency in mind. On top of this, more and more schools are being built, with poor performance commonly being reported amongst completed buildings. As total energy costs are going through the roof, actions to improve energy efficiency have begun sweeping through the sector.

What can be done?  Research has shown that £44 million – about 8% of the total bill – could be saved per year by ‘behaviour change’ methods alone (ie: ‘no cost measures’). These methods include not propping doors open, changing the thermostat settings, and turning out the lights. All will have a significant impact on energy costs. Turning out the lights when no-one is in the room, or on a bright day when the classroom can be well-lit naturally, is simple and effective. Often, thermostats are programed to turn on and off by themselves, but they do so either too early, late, or both. By changing the thermostat settings to come on or off by one hour difference can save 10% on energy bills (Carbon Trust, 2011).  Rolled out across all schools, that would be equivalent to £54,300,000 - £2,280 per school – merely by pressing a few buttons.

There are also simple cost-effective measures that can take place which, in conjunction with behaviour change, could save £135 million. That's a quarter of the costs generated yearly. Of these measures, changing to energy-efficient lighting (like motion-sensor controlled lights) and heating controls will have the greatest impact, and will generally pay back in less than three years (Carbon Trust, 2011).

The impact of energy efficiency is not only an environmental one but also an educational one. Research has shown that a school’s physical characteristics (lighting, colour, noise, and air conditioning) have a profound effect on mood, concentration, and motivation of students and teachers. In addition, having a high quality environment boosts teachers’ moral and students’ academic success.

At the National Energy Foundation, we are committed to not only improving energy efficiency, but educating those pupils and educators in UK schools about the benefits and importance of it. All of the measures I've listed are very attainable goals that are within an arm’s reach.

A particular problem we’re discovering at present is the blossoming range of new school types, delivering rapid change across the sector. This is pretty bewildering for everyone, including local authorities, school management, teachers, parents, government and, yes, pupils. There is a range of issues, not least significant procurement challenges associated with large purchases of energy by institutions with very limited experience of negotiation and contracting.

In addition to this, we’ve found that there are lots of barriers in the sector – not least that schools are complex organisations with many stakeholders and competing interests which don’t necessarily align. The most important job, especially for a charity like us, is to see through the complexity and provide clear messages that can unite the stakeholders which need to act on the opportunities of better schools. We’ll be aiming to do lots of that in the months ahead.

Never has this been more important. Schools are facing major increases in the costs of each unit of energy they buy, and pupil attainment is as high up the agenda as it ever has been. With the mooting of school ranking, teacher performance-related pay and other incentivisation structures, the need to demonstrate outcomes is very pressing.

The list of options bidding for school managers’ attention is long. Improving energy performance – which can save financial resources, improve educational outcomes and raise the morale of everyone – should be top of the class.