A report has identified that about 700,000 children in England attend schools requiring major repairs
The Government does not have sufficient information to manage “critical” risks to the safety of pupils and staff arising from a deterioration in the condition of school buildings, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.
A report by the public spending watchdog identified that about 700,000 children in England attend schools requiring major repairs following years of underfunding, with poor conditions directly affecting pupil attainment and teacher retention.
NAO head Gareth Davies said that, despite assessing the possibility of building collapse or failure causing death or injury as “critical and very likely” in 2021, “the Department for Education has not been able to reduce this risk”.
Around 24,000 school buildings, or 38% of the total, are currently beyond their estimated design lifespan, the report found.
A major cause of concern is the prevalence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which is prone to failure and was regularly used between the 1950s and mid-1990s.
The department has been considering the potential risk posed by RAAC since 2018, following a roof collapse at a school in Kent, but potential problems in many schools remain unknown.
Responding to the findings, Labour chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee Dame Meg Hillier said: “Seven-hundred-thousand pupils are learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment, but worryingly Government does not know how many schools may be unsafe.
“Since 2017, the Department for Education has improved its data on the general condition of the school estate, which has helped illustrate a serious deficit in annual funding required to improve schools.
“After years of firefighting issues, parents need reassurance that the department knows where, when and how any risks to their children will be remedied.”
The NAO acknowledged it can be challenging for the department to understand and oversee safety issues due to size and complexity of the school estate.
The department has expanded its data collection programme, distributed warnings to bodies responsible for school safety, and issued guidance on identifying RAAC.
The NAO said the focus is now on 14,900 schools built during the period when RAAC was used in construction. Of these, 42% have confirmed they have undertaken work to identify RAAC, but potential risks are yet to be identified in the remaining schools.
By May this year, 572 schools had been confirmed as potentially containing RAAC and the department is working with them to confirm that steps had been taken to mitigate the safety of staff and pupils, the report said.
The latest figures show that 196 of 600 assessments planned by December had identified RAAC in 65 schools, of which 24 required immediate action. Extra funding has been provided to ensure there is no immediate risk in these schools.
There are also concerns over some “system-built” blocks constructed using concrete or wooden frames.
Of the 13,800 system-built school buildings identified, 3,600 have been classified as particularly vulnerable to failure.
The department approved plans to carry out assessments of 200 of these schools but is yet to commission specialists to conduct the first 100 visits.
In its submission ahead of the 2020 Spending Review, the department said it needed £5.3 billion a year of capital funding to maintain schools and mitigate the most serious risks of building failure.
Due to the time it would take the department to expand its school rebuilding programme, it requested an average of £4 billion a year between 2021 and 2025.
However, the Treasury subsequently allocated an average of £3.1 billion, leading bodies such as local authorities and multi-academy trusts to use limited funding on the most urgent problems at the expense of general remedial work to prevent building failure in the future, the report said.
The money includes funding to rebuild 500 schools in a 10-year programme, but the department was found to be making slower-than-expected progress on awarding contracts.
The report said this was largely due to firms not taking on contracts due to “instability in the construction market and inflationary risks”.
A separate NAO report published on Wednesday found that the department has an “ambitious” strategy for decarbonising educational sites but no plan for how it will achieve this or how much it is likely to cost.
The NAO recommends that the department considers how its sustainability ambitions can be achieved when addressing the condition of the school estate.
Mr Davies said the department needs to effectively target its resources.
“It must now use this to improve its understanding of where schools are most at risk so it can balance addressing the most urgent risks while investing enough in maintenance, reducing carbon emissions, and climate change adaptation measures to achieve its objectives and secure longer-term value for money,” he added.
Teaching representatives described the scale of the building safety issues in schools as “shocking” and accused the Government of dangerous neglect.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is perfectly clear that the Government has made a conscious decision to deprioritise education over the past 14 years and the deterioration of the school estate is one of the results of this mindset.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said safety in schools should be “a given”.
He added: “These shocking figures lay bare how far short the Government is falling in its efforts to ensure school buildings are safe and fit for purpose for children and staff.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Nothing is more important than the safety of pupils and teachers which is why we have been significantly investing in transforming schools up and down the country.
“We are investing in 500 projects for new and refurbished school buildings through our school rebuilding programme. On top of this, we have allocated over £15 billion since 2015 for keeping schools safe and operational, including £1.8 billion committed for 2023-24.
“It is the responsibility of those who run our schools: academy trusts, local authorities, and voluntary-aided school bodies; who speak to their schools’ day-to-day to manage the maintenance of their schools and to alert us if there is a concern with a building.
“We will always provide support on a case-by-case basis if we are alerted to a serious safety issue by these responsible bodies.”