Northern Ireland news

Belfast principal says schools facing tough choices over 'scandalous' heating costs

Braniel Primary School Principal Diane Dawson with pupils. Picture: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press
Allan Preston

A PRIMARY principal has hit out at the “scandalous” price increases schools are facing this winter for energy and school supplies.

Diane Dawson from Braniel PS in Belfast told The Irish News that her oil heating bill has nearly trebled from £6,000 to £16,000 in just one year.

Electricity prices for the school have also doubled to £12,000 while the cost of photocopying paper used for teaching handouts now costs twice as much.

While her budget is still in a healthy position despite the increases, Ms Dawson said other schools are likely to face tough choices on how they will heat their buildings for young pupils.

“I really feel for schools who are genuinely going to have to decide between putting the heat on or not," she said.

“It’s scandalous. How can any child or young person be expected to learn in an environment that is not conducive to heat?”

Ms Dawson also questioned if the Department of Education guidance was still to keep school windows open because of Covid.

“How are schools going to teach during the winter with the windows open? It’s not possible.”

Asked if some schools would be forced to lean on contributions from parents, she said: “I have relatives with three children in a school 20 miles from here.

“I know parents are asked to send in (stationary). That’s on top of paying for three school uniforms. One of my staff also received a text to say he owed £150 for his child’s school fund.

“We haven’t charged school fees for a long time, but I think the majority of schools are asking parents to send in money.

“What is happening to education? Parents shouldn’t be asked to have to pay for their child’s education. It’s scandalous. The reality is that over the last decade our budgets have been decreased year on year. So if schools can’t even provide heating now we have to ask ourselves, what state is the education system in? And those who are stewards of it, what are they doing?”

Ulster Unionist deputy leader and education spokesman Robbie Butler said: “There is a real risk here to education I believe. Pupils are entitled to a warm, well-lit and ventilated education setting.

“Principals shouldn’t be faced with having to decide whether they can or cannot heat and ventilate a school.”

He added: “The Education Minister (the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen) needs to step up...given the reality we have where the DUP are blocking the formation of a full executive then the minister must take full responsibility.”

The SDLP’s education spokesman, Daniel McCrossan, said urgent steps were needed to be taken to find additional resources.

“This is not a crisis waiting to happen, it is a crisis unfolding before our eyes,” he said.

“It is clear that schools cannot pay the bills that are now coming their way. Existing budgets won’t stretch.”

With schools in England, Scotland and Wales getting extra funding for heating costs, he called on the education and finance minister to work together to helps schools meet the “unavoidable costs”.

“We also need to see Education Authority publish a plan for how it intends to support schools through this cost of living crisis," he added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “We understand the challenges faced by schools arising from increased energy costs. Officials from the Department and the Education Authority continue to keep the situation under review to ensure that the estimated energy cost pressures which schools face are given due priority in any future discussions on the budget. However, it is anticipated the recent announcement of support from the UK government for households, businesses and public sector organisations facing rising energy bills will help mitigate against increasing energy costs."

Northern Ireland news