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THE MORNING LEAD

Schools in 'outdated buildings' fear a winter of energy rationing and cold classes

‘It’s very difficult to ask parents for help, because no more than ourselves, every household is really suffering.’

MANY SECONDARY SCHOOLS are being forced to fundraise in an attempt to cope with rising energy costs amid already troublesome day-to-day running costs.

That’s according to the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), which adds that “prolonged underfunding” has put schools in this situation.

While the ASTI “acknowledged” one-off additional funding of €90 million to support increased school running costs, it said a “significant increase in overall funding” is required.

In a statement to The Journal, the second level teachers union pointed to the OECD’s recent ‘Education as a Glance’ report.

In the OECD report, Ireland is ranked in last place out of 36 OECD countries for investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.

The ASTI said the “funding gap experienced by second-level schools in Ireland is not new and arose long before current inflationary increases”.

“It is due to prolonged underfunding and it is the reason why so many second-level schools are forced to fundraise to try and meet day-to-day operational costs,” the union explained. 

Meanwhile, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) “noted” the one-off funding announced in the budget to “provide assistance for spiralling energy bills”.

However, in a statement to The Journal, TUI added: “It must be borne in mind that not every education centre is the same with regard to ventilation, insulation etc.

“As we face into the winter months, it is unclear as to whether the additional funding provided will be sufficient to meet rising costs.

“However, our position is clear – wherever it is required, additional funding over and above what the Budget caters for must immediately be made available to ensure that all students have access to educational environments that are conducive to learning.”

‘Broader issue’

Scoil Íosagáin in Mallow, Co Cork, is perhaps one of the schools the TUI has in mind when it notes that not every school is the same with regard to ventilation and insulation.

Linda Dennehy is the principal of Scoil Íosagáin Infant School and told The Journal that the issue of energy costs needs to be looked at in a “more strategic, long term, and purposeful way”.

“My old school is an older building,” said Dennehy. “So the wiring is older and it’s not as energy efficient as it could be. It’s a 1960s convent and it’s very draughty.”

While Dennehy says immediate, short-term assistance is required, she describes the condition of school buildings around the country as the “broader issue”.

“School buildings are a very big and broad issue that needs to be looked at in a more strategic, long term, and purposeful way, even without the energy crisis.

“In terms of going green and sustainability, and also in terms of having spaces that our children should be educated in.

“New school classrooms being built in Ireland are 80 metres squared, but most of my classrooms at the minute are less than 40 metres squared.”

Scoil Íosagáin is in the process of getting an extension to its existing 1960s building.

Dennehy says it will be a “really energy efficient piece of the school that will run itself and will be very cost saving”.

But she adds: “At the minute, we have a prefab to keep us going until the new build comes because we are just so short of space.

“It’s state of the art, it’s got air-con and heating, but it is so heavy on power and is so expensive. It has added a third to our power bill already.”

Dennehy explains that schools receive a “Capitation Grant” that covers the day-to-day running costs of schools, such as heating and lighting.

Thirty percent of this grant is received by schools in June, while the other 70% is paid in January.

Making the money stretch until January is an issue for many schools, including Scoil Íosagáin.

“There is huge fear,” said Dennehy.

Although some schools are turning to parents for support, Dennehy said: “It’s very difficult to ask parents for help, because no more than ourselves, every household is really suffering.

“So like most people, they’re finding it difficult to make their own ends meet, never mind helping the school.

“It’s coming back to the bigger issue that a lot of the primary school buildings in Ireland, they’re so old and out of date and they lack insulation and those basic things, which means they’re not good energy wise.”

Covid-19

Last month, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly warned of a “significant” increase in the number of people in hospital with Covid in recent weeks.

Last winter, many schools had to keep windows open to meet Covid-19 ventilation standards.

Dennehy worries that it would be difficult to implement such measures this winter due to soaring energy costs.

“With Covid last year, we were used to having a lot of ventilation, so the heating was on but the buildings were cold because of the ventilation.

“The children were wearing their coats and we don’t know where the covid crisis is going.

“It’s very much back in schools, we have an awful lot of staff who are off with covid at the minute.

“Will more covid measures come in for the winter? Last winter, we had windows open, we had doors open, the corridors were always very cold. There’ll be a lot of issues around it.”

To cope with energy demands, Dennehy says her schools is “ruling nothing out at this stage” but returns to the issue of outdated school buildings.

“I know there are schools who will have to ration heating, while other children are in very new, efficient buildings which are very warm.”

She noted that the Department of Education has advised that schools that are in “extreme difficulties” can make a request for extra funding.

However, Dennehy is unsure whether her school would qualify.

“You don’t want a short-term solution here,” says the Scoil Íosagáin principal.

“The grants that we’ve been promised is great, and it’s really well received, and we are very grateful to get the money.

“But the issue of the school buildings is a bigger, broader issue.”

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson from the Department of Education said: “As part of the Cost of Living measures to be enacted this year, €90m is being provided in one-off additional funding to support increased running costs.

“This represents an increase of circa 40% of current standard and enhanced capitation rates.

“The government has made provision for a review of the position in 2023 and should additional funding be required this will be considered in light of all other competing demands at that time as well as the level of funding available.”

The spokesperson added that the Department has also “ensured that centrally negotiated rates are available to schools for electricity and bulk heating fuels”.

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