700,000 pupils in potentially unsafe buildings

The school estate across England has deteriorated to the point where 700,000 pupils attend schools that need major rebuilding or refurbishment, MPs have warned.

The combination of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), asbestos and generally under-investment presents a triple threat to the safety of school buildings.

A report from the House of Commons public accounts committee says that “unacceptable numbers of pupils are learning in poorly maintained or potentially unsafe buildings”.

Roughly one in 10 school buildings across England (5,749 out of approximately 64,000) are  relocatable mobile blocks – Portakabins or similar.

The government’s school rebuilding programme (SRP), which is behind its initial schedule for getting schools built, has considered upgrades to 1,200 schools with safety issues or in poor condition. 500 schools in total will be selected to be included in the SRP, but many of the 100 schools still to be selected will be chosen due to RAAC issues. Many other schools will therefore not get on the programme even though longer-term assessments of their poor condition would lead to a conclusion that they should be rebuilt.

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The public accounts committee said that it was “extremely concerned that DfE does not have a good enough understanding of the risks in school buildings to keep children and staff safe”.  Department for Education (DfE) officials were unable to tell the committee’s inquiry how many surveys to identify RAAC were outstanding, how many temporary classrooms had been provided to schools affected by RAAC, or say when RAAC issues would be addressed. There is a lack of certainty on support for schools affected by RAAC, and questions around both the reliability of the DfE’s information on the number and condition and schools affected, and the government’s attitude to risk with regards to the school estate.

The report also notes that, as at July 2023, the DfE was unsighted on asbestos in 4% of schools. While this has fallen from 7% at May 2022, this still represents almost 1,000 schools. Both RAAC and asbestos can be present in the same building, complicating any works to tackle the issues, the MPs said.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said: “A significant proportion of children in this country are learning in dilapidated or unsafe buildings. This is clearly beyond unacceptable, but overcoming the consequences of this deficit of long-term infrastructure planning will not be easy. The school rebuilding programme was already struggling to stay on track, and DfE lacked a mechanism to direct funding to regions which need it most. It risks being blown further off course by concerns over RAAC, and many schools in dire need of help will not receive it as a result.

The images of classroom ceilings collapsed onto empty school desks released in recent months are not just searing indictments of a deteriorating school estate. They are chilling reminders of absolute catastrophe averted through sheer luck. Given the poor condition of so many of these buildings, the government’s prime challenge now is to keep the safety of children and staff absolutely paramount.”

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