Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has said he is “looking very closely” at schools’ costs, including rising energy prices.
Speaking to Times Radio on Friday, he said energy costs are “about 1.4, 1.5% of a school’s budget”.
He added: “The schools who are out of contract, which are a minority, that 1.4, 1.5% jumps up to maybe 7, 8, 9, 10%, so we’re looking very carefully at that.”
He said the spending review settlement had given the Department for Education some “headroom”, and it is speaking to headteachers and unions about the issue.
“I’m looking to see how I can help those if they are out of contract, partly to help them get the best deal but also to see where that pressure is really acute, how we can help them,” he said.
Mr Zahawi added that he is looking at the “cost of food into schools as well”, as he said schools and their food providers have been “really good” in trying to limit costs with the inflationary spike.
He said he would “look at everything” when considering options to help schools, including using money from the spending review to help with rising food costs.
This week the boss of one of the UK’s biggest food wholesalers said schools may have to reduce portion sizes for children’s meals due to ratcheting costs.
Andrew Selley, chief executive of Bidfood, said schools might also use cheaper ingredients in a bid to counter rapidly rising food prices.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “The situation is going to lead to some difficult decisions for school caterers.
“Either they are going to serve smaller portions or use cheaper ingredients, which is not going to be good for children.”
Asked what grade he would give himself as Education Secretary, Mr Zahawi said: “My grade? Judge me by my outcomes, would be my grade”, adding that the TL badge he wears stands for T-levels – new vocational qualifications – rather than “Tory leader”.
He said T-levels will give people “more runways for their careers to take off”, with the qualification acting as a “fusion” between A-levels and apprenticeships.
Asked whether too many people go to university, he said: “I think we made a mistake. When Tony Blair said that at least 50% of the country should go to university because that’s the way you create a productive economy, I think that, in my view, is not what we should be focused on. It’s not inputs that matter, it’s outcomes on the other side.”
He said the UK has a “great” university sector but some courses are “probably designed to take advantage of the system of £9,250-a-year rather than delivering a great outcome for that student, ie a great job or going on to a masters or a PhD”.
He added that on the whole, courses’ value for money during the pandemic was “less good” and said he would encourage students who felt they had had a “suboptimal” experience to ask for their money back.
Meanwhile, Mr Zahawi said the lack of exam invigilators this year was “pre-Covid, always an issue” and that some schools have asked parents to invigilate.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “NAHT has been extremely clear in our call for government to do more to ease the impact of the energy crisis on schools.
“To hear the Secretary of State say he’s looking “carefully” at providing energy support is certainly encouraging, but must backed up quickly with decisive action.
“Increased energy costs mean that money which should be spent on pupils will end up being paid to energy companies instead. This can only have a negative impact upon our children’s education.
“We look forward to hearing further from the Secretary of State on the support measures that are so urgently needed.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges will be pleased to hear that the Education Secretary has belatedly acknowledged what they have been telling him for several months now, that the massive increase in energy costs is playing havoc with their budgeting.
“Where schools and colleges will vehemently disagree with the Education Secretary is his assertion that they have ‘additional headroom’ in their budgets to cope with the significant increase in energy bills, while at the same time acknowledging that for those that find themselves out of contract, energy costs could account for up to 10% of their overall budget.
“Quite where the Education Secretary feels this headroom lies will be a complete mystery to school and college leaders, who are having to make very difficult spending decisions on a daily basis.
“While it is reassuring to learn that the government is ‘looking very carefully’ at an issue that should have been glaringly obvious, what schools and colleges need is cast-iron guaranteed funding to help them weather the current storm on energy prices.”