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Schools’ gas bills could still double despite new cap, DfE poll suggests

But the DfE warns low school response rates mean its national energy survey is 'not representative'

But the DfE warns low school response rates mean its national energy survey is 'not representative'

22 Sep 2022, 15:16

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A small-scale government survey suggests some schools will still see gas bills more than double under the new energy price gap.

The government unveiled details of its energy “guarantee” this week, saying school bills from October will be 40 per cent cheaper than if they had signed new deals in July, when prices had soared.

But a new Department for Education report reveals how much of an increase it would still mark on what schools were paying in May, when prices had already started to rise following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Findings from a DfE poll, which it has previously refused to release, show the average respondent paid between 2p and 4p per kilowatt hour of gas.

The government’s wholesale price guarantee only caps gas at 7.5p per kwh, marking a 133.3 per cent increase for any schools on new deals that previously paid 3p.

But the DfE warned figures are “not representative”, inferences “should not be drawn” and schools’ contractual autonomy means it could not “quantify the true impact of the energy prices”, anyway.

Only 82 schools provided detailed gas data, despite all schools being sent the poll in the hope government could “find out more about energy contracts in schools”.

But 575 schools provided renewal figures, suggesting most are exposed to price hikes. Some 33 per cent said deals expired by November and 60 per cent by April.

Yet the survey does bear out government claims bills will fall versus current market rates.

Schools were being quoted 9p per kwh even in May, and data provided to Schools Week by Zenergi shows prices reached 21.5p in August.

The energy consultancy has said hundreds of schools renewed that month, suggesting their bills will fall by around two-thirds under the guarantee.

Among 40 schools providing detailed electricity data, the average was being quoted 32p per kwh in May.

The government price guarantee caps prices at 21.1p, suggesting those schools which renewed then would save a third on market rates. Prices have risen since too, with some school leaders previously telling Schools Week they faced “apocalpytic” bill hikes of up to 587 per cent.

But surveyed schools were previously paying 16p per kwh. For any with deals yet to expire, the cap will still mean an electricity cost hike of around a third after renewal.

The government says support will be applied automatically to eligible bills, though discounts will only apply to deals signed since April or on variable rates, and are subject to a maximum discount.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, welcomed the details of the scheme, but warned the “glaring problem is the fact that the scheme is time-limited to six months”.

The government has said it will review the scheme in three months before making a decision about support beyond March 2023.

“This uncertainty makes it impossible for schools and colleges to plan financially with any degree of confidence because they could be knocked off course at a later date by steep rises to energy bills if government support drops off.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said support was “desperately needed”, but warned a six-month relief scheme “creates its own set of difficulties”.

And Paul Whiteman, from school leaders’ union NAHT, said he had “real concerns that this just doesn’t go far enough”, pointing out those who signed larger contracts before April will “slip through the cracks”.

A DfE spokesperson said it understood schools “like wider society” faced rising energy costs, but government measures would cap spending and provide certainty.

She added: “Core school funding is increasing by £4bn this year compared to 2021-22, and all schools can access a range of tools through our school resource management programme to help them get the best value from their resources.”

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