Many school buildings in England are now in such a bad state of repair that they pose a “life hazard”, according to internal government documents sent to the Observer†
Emails sent to Downing Street by senior officials of Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi show that they have raised the alarm twice in the past six weeks.
The officials are urgently calling on the Treasury to provide additional billions to increase the number of school renovation projects from 50 per year to more than 300.
On March 30, as part of a weekly update of No. 10 from the Ministry of Education (DfE), senior officials cite the problem of deteriorating school buildings under the headline “upcoming risks and opportunities.”
They say, “School buildings: Deteriorating condition of school grounds remains a risk, with state funding for FY [financial year] 2022-23, some locations life-threatening, too many expensive and energy-inefficient repairs instead of rebuilding, and demand x3 supply rebuild.”
The same email goes on to clarify how the DfE is battling the Treasury for £13bn, now available as a result of recent higher education reforms, to spend on school repairs.
“DfE continues to engage HMT to expand the School Rebuilding Program by a similar amount as discussed in the spend review negotiations. This includes increasing the number of School Rebuilding Program projects per year from 50 to over 300.”
On April 4, officials again sounded the alarm under the same heading of ‘risks and opportunities’ and reiterated the warning that some school grounds pose a ‘life hazard’. The second email adds, “We want to scale up school rebuilding.”
The revelations will put enormous pressure on both No. 10 and the Treasury to divert additional billions to keep schools and students safe, at a time when they are already facing calls to help millions of low-income people overcome the crisis of the cost of living to get through.
On Saturday, Kevin Courtney, joint secretary of the National Education Union, blamed years of Tory cuts in capital spending in schools and said current problems ranged from dangerous roofs to asbestos.
He said: “All children deserve to learn in high-quality, safe and comfortable buildings. But in 2022-23, capital financing will be £1.9bn less a year in real terms than in the final years of the Labor government. If the government had not halted Labour’s school rebuilding programme, £27 billion more would have been spent on school and university buildings. So while any money spent on school buildings is welcome, the scale should be judged by what has been cut, which is 50 times greater.
“The challenges that need to be addressed are enormous. And whether addressing the problem, potentially dangerous roofing, retrofitting for energy efficiency and to help meet climate obligations, or basic repairs, the challenge is made all the more challenging by the presence of asbestos in so many school buildings. The government must show much more ambition and urgently tackle these issues strategically.”
An official House of Commons library briefing from March this year entitled “School Building and Capital Funding” confirms the massive cuts in capital spending since the Tories came to power in 2010.
It states: “Spending has generally followed a downward trend between 2009-10 and 2013-14 and in the years since spending has fluctuated… Overall, capital spending fell by 25% between 2009-10 and 2021-22. cash and 29% after adjusting for inflation (2021-22 prices).”
In a statement to the House of Commons in July 2011, then education secretary, Michael Gove, said the design of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future program was “not as efficient as it could have been”.
Gove said it did not prioritize schools in the worst condition and that it did not buy new buildings as cheaply as possible. Instead, Gove set up the Priority School Building Programme, which he said would be available to “all schools – academies, community schools and volunteer schools – and local authorities responsible for the maintenance of a number of schools”. It would, he said, address the issues and be available to schools of “greatest need”.
But the leaked documents confirm a gradual deterioration over the next 11 years, despite repeated warnings that a crisis was approaching.
Bridget Phillipson MP, the shadow secretary for education, said: “The Conservatives have let down a generation of children by cutting investment in our schools during their 12 years in power.
“Their negligence is now endangering lives, but the Foreign Secretary is still unable to convince the Chancellor to act. Labor would build a Britain where children come first, but the Tories allow while English schools collapse.”
In 2019 the Guardian reported that more than one in six schools in England still needed urgent repairs and cited warnings of schools “crumbling around teachers and pupils”. According to the official data at the time, 17% (3,731) of schools had buildings with “elements”, such as a roof, wall or window, that needed immediate action.
Of the 21,796 schools for which information was released, 1,313 had elements that received the worst possible condition, grade D, defined as “life elapsed and/or severe risk of imminent failure”.
A DfE spokesperson: “The safety of students and staff is paramount. We have one of the largest and most comprehensive research programs in Europe, and this enables us to assess and manage the risks in our buildings. We prioritize buildings at risk to health and safety and have invested £11.3 billion since 2015 to improve the condition of school buildings and facilities. In addition, our new School Rebuilding Program will transform the learning environment at 500 schools over the next ten years.”