The government’s change of heart on renewable energy production, one might call it a –U- turn in some respects, is obviously welcome news. But, what part can schools play in this new order of local power generation and the regulation of consumption at source?
I have long argued that many outside spaces in schools are the least used public asset in the country. Playgrounds are barely used in term-time in most schools and in most cases lie entirely dormant during the holiday periods. A national scheme to use these for ground source heating and other power and heating sources would surely be cost effective. Such a scheme, allied to battery storage and other possible renewable technologies, where applicable, could be funded through a community bond scheme where the returns were shared between the investors and the school on a sliding scale agreed in advance.
Brokering a national scheme with set costs and the most effective construction methods taking the least amount of time is a responsible role for the DfE, although they could offer it out to tender for all academies and free schools as a start. It could also include retrofitting rainwater collection and even green roofs, where they were possible.
I always thought this type of initiative would have been a vote winner for the Lib Dems in the coalition. They should have pushed small scale public works during the aftermath of the recession rather than big schemes such as Swansea Bay tidal power project, where finding the money was always going to be a challenge. But, the Ministers didn’t seem to agree with my view.
An even more radical scheme would be to encourage teachers and other employees in schools to purchase electric cars or cycles and to offer free re-charging at the school site, powered by the renewable energy wherever possible. Perhaps we could start with a scheme for school minibuses?
An audit of school freezer electricity consumption would be an interesting starting point to assess how much money could be saved by fitting an in-line interruptible electricity supply that turned off during peak power demand periods. If filled in-line, the freezers themselves wouldn’t need to be changed until the time came for them to be updated.
All these ideas require Ministers with a degree of vision beyond the normal scope of such officeholders. That’s why local authorities are so important for education. They offer a more manageable geographical area where ideas can be tried and tested and then expanded to cover the country as a whole. Centralising innovation, as has been the principle method of operation for the past forty years may work, as with the national strategies, but can also lead to disasters, such as making the teaching profession feel undervalued, with all the inevitable consequences for recruitment and retention.
The Secretary of State should embrace the announcement from the Business Secretary and use it as means to show she has the best intentions for the education service at heart. It would certainly be more popular than the decision this time last year to focus on selective education as the way forward.