The chemicals cost crisis | Analysis


The rising prices of chemicals and consumables is forcing some schools to cut back on practical work. Technicians are spending their valuable time and energy investigating ever more creative ways to keep costs down, and students have fewer opportunities to learn experimental skills as teachers turn to demonstrations and videos.

In summer 2023, rising costs really kicked in last summer, says Bob Worley, senior adviser with CLEAPSS. His research found that, except for bromine, the cost of chemicals rose roughly in line with inflation from 2015 but exceeded it in 2022 and 2023. For example, the price of 100 g of lithium chloride has increased by 305% since 2022 and 527% since 2015 (see table below).

Spotting the changes

There are several reasons behind the price hikes — the war in Ukraine, higher energy costs and extra Brexit-related paperwork. The long school supply chain with repackaging and distribution also adds to costs.

During the pandemic, the use of chemicals was reduced, so it’s only now that some schools are reordering and finding prices have risen significantly. ‘While fee-paying schools can probably absorb much of the increase, this is not the case in the state sector where budgets are not rising in line with inflation,’ says Bob.

He thinks schools will continue using small-scale practical activities that became more popular during the pandemic. Technicians might also decide to use chemicals after their expiry date (after visual checks). CLEAPSS and SSERC in Scotland advise on which chemicals can be stored for longer and which, like ammonia, concentrated hydrochloric acid and hydrogen peroxide, cannot.

On the frontline

‘We are definitely having to buy less for more money,’ says Shannon Smith, a science technician at Stour Valley Community School. ‘This September we spent £39.60 on six bottles of concentrated HCl compared to £27.48 for the same in 2019. That’s significant on an already tight science budget. These kinds of increases are happening across the board for all chemicals and consumables.’

As a result, her school’s science department is cutting back and not buying all the consumables required, says Shannon. ‘A few times in a school year we are unable to replace broken or old items. We don’t have the funds. Students are then missing out as they’re having to watch videos or demos of experiments.’

















Chemical Volume/mass Price 2015 (£) Price July 2022 (£) Percentage increase (%) Price July 2023 (£) Percentage increase from July 2022 (%) Percentage increase from 2015 (%)

Ammonia (conc)

1 L

5.32

8.59

61.5

13.36

55.5

251.1

Bromine (liquid)

100 mL

30.95

82.06

165.1

86.16

5.0

278.4

Copper(II) oxide

250 g

6.73

8.09

20.2

10.64

31.5

158.1

Cyclohexane

500 mL

5.34

6.43

20.4

8.27

28.6

154.9

Cyclohexene

250 mL

11.42

14.58

27.7

16.73

14.7

146.5

Hydrochloric acid (conc)

1 L

4.45

6.90

55.1

8.67

25.7

194.8

Hydrogen peroxide (100 vol)

1 L

4.45

6.60

48.3

6.93

5.0

155.7

Iron(II) sulfate (hydrated)

500 g

8.20

8.98

9.5

9.33

3.9

113.8

Lithium chloride

100 g

6.30

8.20

30.2

33.20

304.9

527.0

Magnesium ribbon

25 g

3.40

4.83

42.1

5.06

4.8

148.8

Industrial denatured alcohol (IDA; methylated spirits)

1 L

4.05

7.16

76.8

8.73

21.9

215.6

Silver nitrate

25 g

26.30

38.55

46.6

53.35

38.4

202.9

Sodium hydroxide pellets

500 g

4.85

6.74

39.0

9.42

39.8

194.2

Sulfuric acid (conc)

1 L

5.80

9.08

56.6

10.36

14.1

178.6

               

UK inflation

     

22%

2015–2022

 

8%

2022–2023

32%

2015–2023

Atom economy

One way to economise is to avoid chemicals that cannot be open for long, such as hydrogen peroxide. ‘We cannot justify the price for it to be used once,’ says Shannon. ‘I’ll also try and buy from companies where I can save money on postage, use collecting points or get deals on larger quantities.’ Another option is to source chemicals from alternative suppliers, such as hydrogen peroxide from hairdressing suppliers.

 ‘We have cut down on the scale of some practicals or have students working in larger groups to conserve resources’

However, the private school sector appears to be faring better. Richard Blunt is a chemistry technician at Haileybury, an independent school in Hertfordshire. ‘We are very lucky. Chemistry budget reductions have not affected practicals. As we are a well-funded private school and cater for the International Baccalaureate, we spend several hundred pounds annually on expensive chemicals for project work.’ In academic year 2022–2023, Haileybury’s chemistry department spent £972 on chemicals (10% of budget) relative to £1500 in 2021–2022 (15%).

‘Chemical prices have gone up massively, but they are a small proportion of departmental costs,’ says Richard who has tracked some of the price increases relative to academic year 2021–2022. For example, sodium hydroxide pellets have gone up 63%, copper sulfate 53%, ethanoic acid 45% and magnesium ribbon 25% in that time. Other chemicals have not seen such big rises with industrial denatured alcohol rising 8%, HCl (conc) 13% and sodium hydrogen carbonate 16%.

Careful budgeting

At Beaumont secondary school in St Albans, head of science Helen Skelton says price increases mean she monitors budgets closely and considers requests for resources much more carefully. For extracurricular activities, they’ve had to look for alternative funding.

‘We are continuing to teach as usual, including practicals, but I’m very mindful that this may not be possible in future if budgets become tighter,’ says Helen. ‘We have cut down on the scale of some practicals or have students working in larger groups to conserve resources.’

‘Technicians are always coming up with new ideas on minimising expenditure’

One head of chemistry at a state secondary in East Anglia (who wishes to remain anonymous) says price increases mean the head technician always checks chemicals costs with various suppliers, negotiates discounts and is more generous with use-by dates (with visual checks). Equipment is also more expensive. They recently bought two water stills, for example, saying ‘The first cost £1226 and the second one, a month later from the same supplier £1349 – a 10% increase.’

Meanwhile, the chemistry department’s budget has fallen by 60%. ‘I’m fortunate that despite the cuts, our budget is better than I suspect it is in many schools. [Also] we’ll be drawing on stocks of chemicals and equipment built up over several years. Hopefully, financial times will show an upturn in the next couple of years before we use our reserves.’

Coming in short

Tasha Jovanovic-Callaghan, head of chemistry at Eden Park High School in London says, ‘As we are a [new] school, we do not have old chemical stock. We do struggle to buy chemicals. Technicians are always coming up with new ideas on minimising expenditure. For example, we bought burettes with plastic rather than glass jets. However, the plastic ones clog up and students cannot get good results, but at least they get to practise titration.’

Tasha says that lots of teachers rely on YouTube videos showing practicals or to do demonstrations. ‘I have students who’ve never done any experimental work before sixth form and it is definitely hindering their laboratory skills.’

The East Anglian head of chemistry agrees. ‘One of the big problems we have in simply reducing the practicals, aside from the detrimental effect this will have on learning, is that we have highly developed schemes of work planned to move students through from year 7–13. The practicals are designed to develop both theoretical as well as practical skills.’

The impact of losing a practical might not be immediately obvious, but the damage to the student is cumulative. ‘Later concepts cannot be supported, where the scaffold of earlier work has not been adequately cemented,’ they say.

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