VICTORIA WHITE: We need to learn lesson and reduce energy bills in our schools

JUST when the Mammies and Daddies’ pockets have stopped hurting from the new shoes, new clothes and new books, they are faced with paying “voluntary” donations to our schools.

Barnardos says the average “voluntary” contribution requested by schools has gone up by between a half and a third to about €100 per child. It’s not surprising, considering the “capitation grant” paid in respect of all students in State schools was slashed by 3½% in February, backdated to January.

Some €178 per primary schoolkid for all the rubbers and pencils and art materials, as well as the heat and light and power running through all those computers and all those whiteboards. How on earth are schools meant to manage? They could. If they cut their energy use.

About a third of that capitation grant typically goes on energy. That’s more than €59 for each and every child in primary school and more than €105 for every child in secondary school.

Capitation grants account for about 6% of the €3bn education spend, according to Minister Ruairi Quinn, speaking in the Dáil earlier in the year. So the capitation grants come in at about €180m.

The energy costs of the education sector could be very, very roughly calculated as a third of that amount: €60m.

It’s a fair few quid out of our back pockets. And it begs the question why reducing energy use in our schools isn’t a top policy objective of the minister of education? But I can find no reference to cutting energy use in any public utterance in the minister’s year and a half in the job.

Which is astonishing, because unlike cuts in resource teaching hours and in the allocation of special needs assistants, cutting energy use doesn’t hurt anyone. On the contrary, it benefits everyone.

And if schools didn’t use — typically — a third of their capitation grant for heat and light, maybe they wouldn’t have to fundraise for photocopying and paperclips.

Kids wouldn’t have to be asked, as kids were in Scoil Chloch na Coillte, Clonakilty, to bring in their own toilet paper, giving rise to a campaign to remove Vat for schools buying requisites.

I’m not saying Vat on toilet paper isn’t an issue. I’m just saying reducing the amount of mostly imported energy used in our schools should come way, way before any other measure is considered, because it is a cut which would hurt nobody, not even the Exchequer.

And it’s relatively easy to cut energy use by 10% to 20%. The Office of Public Works ran an energy efficiency campaign between 2007 and this year, which cut €5m from an energy spend of €30m across 250 buildings.

The cuts were mostly achieved by changing behaviour. Voluntary energy officers led teams in every building, turning lights and computers off at night, reducing over-heating and over-cooling.

They were helped by equipment, like motion sensors for lights, smart meters which alerted workers to the energy use in the building every 15 minutes, and software programmes to manage computers. All this cost money, but the cost was recouped five times over.

But some schools, working with no extra funding, have reported huge energy use reductions by knuckling down to it, according to An Taisce’s Green Schools Initiative. Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport made a 50% reduction in energy use in 2005 by lowering settings on heaters, appointing monitors to check the lights were turned off, making draught excluders and — most alarmingly — turning off the heat during the summer.

Scoil Phrionsias Naofa, in Clara, Co. Offaly reported a 70% reduction in energy costs by motivating staff and pupils to turn off lights and close doors, reducing the heating settings, putting a time-switch on the staffroom heater and — worryingly again — turning off boilers at night.

These were not professionally audited experiments. But they still lead this parent to suspect that there are staffrooms all over Ireland which are toasty when the teachers are in their classrooms and that in a school somewhere deep in darkest suburbia, a boiler boils right through the night. While Mammies and Daddies pay “voluntary contributions” and sell buns and raffle tickets and play “Guess the name of the goldfish?” to pay for all that wasted energy.

It is amazing that although the capitation grant is paid out of the public purse, the Department of Education gives our schools absolutely no direction as to how much — or how little — should be spent on energy. A helpful new website has been developed with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, energyineducation.ie, full of tips about keeping the photocopier lid closed and turning off the water boiler in the staffroom during the holidays.

But change is only suggested, not required.

And most schools are not even aware of SEAI. I volunteered to help with a random survey of energy awareness in schools organised by Dublin Friends of the Earth earlier this year. Three schools among the 40 contacted had a real energy efficiency plans. Two were private schools, with no capitation grant.

One school principal said she’d had circulars from the Department about virtually everything but energy efficiency.

Why the silence? Could it be because of the nature of our agreement with teachers? The teachers aren’t paid to monitor energy use and it’s not their energy. But it is their students’ money, because energy is paid for out of the capitation grant which is meant to supply all their other needs.

The recession has had devastating effects on young teachers as well as their pupils. But surely the financial and environmental crises demand a new deal between the education sector and the taxpayer to really deliver for kids? And of course it’s not just the education part of the public sector which is wasting energy. A staff member in a health centre volunteered the information to DFOE that the heating was on “24/7”.

DFOE found the same total lack of leadership from ministers and departments in Health and Social Protection. They made the calculation that €100 million could be saved by cutting energy use by 20% in public buildings.

Since Jan 2011 public bodies have been required to report their energy use to SEAI but none has, because there has been no facility, online or otherwise, for them to do so. The reporting is now expected to begin in a few weeks’ time.

Since summer 2011 the Government has been promising a new National Energy Efficiency Action Plan. No sign of it yet.

Meanwhile, we are content to let our kids sit in classrooms which are blasting our money — in the shape of imported fuel — out of their schools.

And out into the atmosphere where the carbon will wreck the planet with hurricanes and droughts and floods and make this a scary place, not just for the kids in the classrooms now, but for their kids and their kids and their kids.

* See the DFOE report on energy in public buildings here


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