School holiday shakeup brings unintended consequences

Change might bring an end to school holiday traffic, and less welcome, unintended changes. samsaundersleeds

Michael Gove’s proposal to allow all schools in England to set their own holidays is part of a bill aimed at removing “unnecessary burdens” and regulations. But removing some burdens could create others. Some potential complications such changes might present for schools and for families have already been discussed, but there are other unintended consequences.

Our particular interest is in energy. The link is not initially obvious, but it is clear that what people do, and when they do it, is important for determining peaks and troughs of energy demand. No one buys gas, electricity or petrol just for the fun of it; they are used for providing power and heat at home, getting to school or to work, and so on. How and when people use these resources, whether they do so at the same time as others, and how they are distributed throughout the year is of direct significance for total energy demand. Changing the length, timing, or coordination of school holidays would have a big impact on the ways in which daily lives are scheduled, and hence on the timing of when energy is used.

Changing travel patterns

For one, travel patterns and the school run could be affected. If families with children at several different schools find that their holidays fall during different periods, the journey to school, with its consequences for fuel use and carbon emissions, might have to be extended to cover more days of the year. Potentially such changes could break up familiar patterns of traffic congestion around the school run, sometimes reducing traffic, or potentially making it worse. Either way, peaks and levels of transport-related energy demand are likely to shift as families adapt to new holiday periods.

Changing where energy is used

Also consider the energy used in heating and running buildings occupied at different times of the day and year. Currently the longest school holiday period is during the summer, when energy demands are lower. During the Christmas break it’s colder, but the energy burden of keeping warm during the day is shifted from the school (or workplace) to the home. In theory, schools could change the timing and duration of holidays so as to reduce the need for energy intensive heating or lighting – for example by making winter and Easter breaks considerably longer and extending the summer term.

Children out of school are generally at home, so this strategy would shift costs from schools to parents. It’s obvious what this would mean for those who pay the bills, but it’s not clear what such a change would mean for total energy consumption. Collective heating systems – as in a school - would more efficiently keep lots of children warm, using less total energy than required to heat and light many private homes through the day. Then again, those homes are already heated for part of the day; extending this by a few more hours (and not heating the country’s schools at all) might entail less energy consumption in total.

Disconnected policies

It would be interesting to see some careful working out of the implications of education policy for energy demand. Somewhat similar calculations have been made in an effort to quantify the energy consequences of putting the clocks back and of thereby shifting patterns of activity into hours of darkness (or light). This is something of an exception. More commonly, little or no attention is paid to the impact that non-energy policies have on the temporal and spatial patterning of daily life, and hence on the energy demands – and carbon emissions - that follow.

One way or another, the proposal to de-synchronise school holidays is sure to have tangible, but unintended and unanticipated consequences for energy demand. And yet despite this there is no systematic attempt to think about how this, or indeed any other, non-energy policy affects the extent and timing of energy demand.