Skip to main content

School Building Conditions

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 21 September 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered school building conditions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I asked for this debate due to a profoundly concerning situation in my constituency. Russell Scott is a large primary school in Denton, Tameside. It is a good school, and the excellent headteacher, Steve Marsland, is a national leader in education. The school is very popular in the local area with both parents and pupils, and currently has 466 pupils on its roll.

I impress on the Minister that this is not the usual case of an MP calling for money to be spent on his or her schools. I could make the case that a number of schools in my constituency would, due to their age or unsuitability for modern teaching and learning, benefit from a new school building, but with Russell Scott the problem is not the aesthetics, the age or the unsuitability of the learning space; it is a potentially unsafe and failing building.

I should perhaps declare a bit of an interest: I am a former Russell Scott pupil. I attended the school between 1978 and 1982, first at the original Victorian school building and then, from 1981, at the then new school building, which is the current building.

Russell Scott was refurbished in 2015 at a cost of £2.7 million. That is not an insubstantial sum of money. The work was done by the collapsed construction giant Carillion on behalf of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council. The purpose of the refurbishment was to remodel the internal space of the school and increase places for its yearly cohort, but in fact Carillion’s refurbishment has caused irreparable damage to the fabric of the school and left it in dire straits. Since the refurbishment was completed, the headteacher and the chair of governors have shared their concerns over the poor quality of the building, as well as the potential health and safety risks to staff and children. Following those concerns, an independent defect report was commissioned by Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council and completed in August 2017. The report found that there were severe issues with the building.

The obligation to carry out the extensive remedial works fell to Carillion; however, as this House will no doubt be aware, the company went bust, leaving the council responsible. Since then, the council has spent £670,000, not on the structural defects, but attempting to maintain the condition of the school and bring it to a safe enough standard for it to remain open to staff and pupils. The investment represents almost one fifth of the total school condition funding that the council received in the same period for all of its schools in the metropolitan borough of Tameside. Despite the size of the investment, it has not even begun to address the scale of the problem at Russell Scott. There are substantial defects and structural issues, the sheer scale of which I do not have time to cover in a half-hour debate. I will, however, give a brief overview of the key areas of concern.

There is significant damage to the external and internal drainage, and the drainage system does not have the capacity to accommodate the additional toilets incorporated within the building. As a result, on several occasions sewage has leaked into the school building and classrooms. Flooding is a regular occurrence. The floors are uneven, leaving some of the fire doors unable to open and close correctly. The roof is leaking and defective and, worse, the structure of the roof is failing. External access ramps are damaged and not compliant with building regulations. The pressure of the flood water has caused the floors and unsupported slabs to crack. The foundations are shot to pieces. The fire doors were not installed correctly and do not meet fire or building regulations.

We have heard about the playing fields of Eton. The playing fields of Russell Scott resemble the Somme in 1916. Carillion illegally tipped, without licence, waste from its other construction sites on to the school playing fields and reseeded them, leaving rubble, glass, metal and wood exposed to children playing on them. They have been closed since the school returned six years ago. The list could go on and on and on, and it makes for totally unsuitable teaching and learning environments. I fear it is only a matter of time before the school becomes unfit for occupation, and when that happens there are no surplus places in local schools to accommodate its nearly 500 pupils. It is simply a crisis waiting to happen.

The question is, how do we address the defects? Repairing the school will cost an estimated £5 million, on top of the £2.7 million refit it had just six years ago. The defects are so severe and so structurally embedded that the surveyors cannot guarantee that the £5 million further refurbishment would resolve all the issues. The best option, then, is for Russell Scott to be totally rebuilt, and the potential cost of a new build is in the region of £10 million. That option has been endorsed by seven different professional disciplines, including independent architects, building surveyors, health and safety consultants, and civil engineers.

The simple fact is that Tameside council cannot afford to rebuild the school. That is a whole different subject for another debate, but it highlights the perfect storm that we are now in and the need for the Government to work collaboratively with the council. School condition funding allocations for Tameside this year are just over £1.3 million for all its schools. That would not even come close to covering the cost of the rebuild. Additionally, Tameside council is attempting to close a £25-million budget gap, which has been exacerbated by a decade of reductions to its revenue support grant.

Others of us have suffered from Carillion’s inability to deliver on contracts, so my heart goes out to my hon. Friend and his school. Is there any way for the local authority or anyone else to draw back money for Carillion’s failures?

The advice that I have is that that will be very difficult and probably a futile task by the local authority. One of the real issues that rankles, not just with me but with the headteacher, the chair of governors, the whole governing body and the local authority, is that there is no comeback on these shysters. It is not just Carillion but its subcontractors that did a botched job and took a hefty sum of public money, destroying a perfectly good, structurally sound public building in the process.

I have talked about the funding problems that Tameside council is experiencing, but the issue is even more serious because its budget gap and other financial pressures basically mean that it is unable to borrow to fund the project. Bluntly, it will be served with a section 114 notice if it even tries, so precarious are its finances. I recognise that there are many pressures on capital budgets, but I believe that Russell Scott is an extraordinary case that requires national intervention and help. I am pleading with the Minister for that. The school was poorly refurbished by a contractor that we are now essentially unable to hold to account in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggested. The issue is now financially beyond the scope of the local education authority, Tameside council, to address on its own.

The situation at Russell Scott is causing significant distress to staff, who are having to teach in completely unsuitable conditions, and will no doubt be affecting the learning experiences of pupils at a pivotal age.

Just as my hon. Friend describes his school, I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to All Saints Roman Catholic School in York, which is over 400 years old. It has accessibility challenges as well as many of the construction problems that are being described. To refurbish a listed school costs an excessive amount of money. That school needs to be rebuilt and brought on to one site. Does he agree that we need to ensure that the estate is fit for purpose, particularly as this issue affects the learning opportunities of young people?

I absolutely do agree. I do not know my hon. Friend’s school, so I take her word that it is in the kind of condition that Russell Scott is in. I could list other schools in my constituency that need to be rebuilt. There is a fundamental issue here about how we upgrade our school stock so that it is fit for purpose for the 21st century and fit for the best possible teaching and learning experiences, which all our children deserve. I fully support her in trying to get improvements for her 400-year-old school in the magnificent city of York.

Given the reasons that I have outlined, I raised Russell Scott at Education questions, and the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), promised me a meeting with Baroness Berridge, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System. I and representatives of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, both elected members and officers, were very grateful to Baroness Berridge for swiftly arranging a meeting. She was very open in recognising the severity of the situation. She advised us of a possible route that could, if the Government’s officials agreed with the structural assessments of the council’s officers, potentially open the door to the Government’s capital rebuilding programme. I think that the next stage of the programme that can be accessed will be in 2023.

I understand that the capital programme is much in demand. While 50 new schools a year for the next 10 years sounds a lot—and it is in one respect—the fact that they are spread across the whole of England means that demand is always going to outstrip supply, and the application process for funds will no doubt be incredibly competitive.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), I have a number of schools in Vauxhall, just across the bridge here, that are in desperate need of refurbishment: Wyvil School, Allen Edwards Primary School, Vauxhall Primary School and Walnut Tree Walk Primary School. These are schools where, unfortunately, there is water coming through the roof, and teachers are having to place buckets to catch it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to ramp up school capital funding? The Government’s levelling-up agenda has to mean levelling up in all our schools across the country.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. To some extent it is a separate debate. I agree with her that education has to be the key to levelling up communities like mine and hers, and ensuring that all young people have opportunities to excel and be the best, whatever they are destined to be. It is the challenge of teachers to find out what that something is and to encourage pupils, nurture them and allow them to grow. In some communities, that needs an extra boost, and I certainly agree with her that levelling up is part of that. Her children, just like my children, deserve to be taught in the very best facilities.

As I said, I could list myriad schools in my constituency that I would want to be rebuilt. However, I make a special case for an exceptionally serious situation that one particular school finds itself in because of the shockingly poor work of Carillion. Baroness Berridge also assured me that Government officials would develop a robust contingency plan for the event that the school became unsafe to use. That is crucial, because there is not capacity in Tameside, as I have said before, to accommodate almost 500 extra pupils. I am not sure that there are 500 places in total across the whole of the Tameside primary estate, but there are also the logistics of having 500 children from Denton in the south-east of the borough travelling to 30 different schools. It is just not feasible, even if the spaces were there, and they are not.

I am aware that the Department for Education has undergone profound changes over the last week and that Baroness Berridge has been replaced by Baroness Barran. It is incredibly remiss of me not to have welcomed the Minister for Schools, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), to his new position at the Department for Education. I might say glowing things about him, depending on his response. I have always found him to be a very decent Member of Parliament and colleague from across the Floor. I know that he will do his best with this case to ensure that we can forward the issues at Russell Scott as best we can. I have every confidence in that.

Can the Minister reassure me that what Baroness Berridge said in our meeting last week still stands? If so, can he advise what the point of contact should be within the DFE or Tameside council and the relevant officers over the coming months, as we work collaboratively to address this serious situation? Tameside council has said it is more than happy to share its independent surveys with the team at the DFE. That is the first step, and I hope we can come to a common position on those findings and work a route through from there.

I would also be grateful if the Minister could assure me that the DFE is already working to implement the contingency plans that Baroness Berridge mentioned were of the utmost urgency. In the event of a building failure—we could literally be one or two severe weather events away from one—we will have a major problem if we have not thought about how we deal with accommodating almost 500 pupils.

Russell Scott serves a fairly deprived catchment in a heavily built-up urban environment. The children have wonderful opportunities there. The staff are second to none, and no child is left behind—one of them became a Member of this House.

I am really grateful to be given the opportunity to speak about this issue. The children at Russell Scott deserve to be taught in a safe and secure environment. There is a lot of talk in this country and from the Government Benches about the need to level up. I agree with that—I have always agreed with the need to level up those parts of the country that, sadly, are lagging behind. Here is a real opportunity to make a tangible difference to the lives of pupils, staff and parents in a part of my constituency. I hope the Minister agrees that the issue is of the utmost importance, urgent and serious and that he recommits to facilitating the work that was just beginning prior to Baroness Berridge’s departure.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and speaking up for the school that he himself attended. He has made a passionate and clear case.

I also take this opportunity to say how pleased I am to be addressing the Chamber today as the Minister for school standards. I am looking forward to working alongside the new Minister for the school system, Baroness Barran, to ensure that our schools are working effectively and to provide every child with the best start in life.

As a constituency MP who has written over the years to the Department about a number of condition issues, I have great sympathy with where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I recognise also that he says that this is an exceptional case.

I recognise that well maintained buildings are essential to support high-quality education so that pupils gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need. All pupils deserve an effective and safe environment to learn in, which is why maintaining and improving the condition of our school estate is a Government priority. The Department does not directly own or manage the school estate, but it has an important stewardship role and we are focused on supporting those responsible for school buildings to improve schools throughout the country. We do that through annual capital funding, delivering rebuilding programmes and offering guidance and support for the sector.

What is the Department going to do about the quality? Who gets on the list of people who are reputable enough and have enough of a track record to be good contractors? Is it not time we have the good list and the not-so-good list and that those come from the Department because it has so much knowledge about who is in the contracting industry?

The hon. Gentleman speaks from his enormous experience and he raises a sensible point. It is for the Department to work with local authorities and the various commissioning bodies to ensure they are working with the most reputable people. We all know—and successive Governments have worked with—some businesses that do not succeed.

In the case of Carillion, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has given some shocking examples of the way it behaved, particularly with regard to the playing fields. That should not have been the case. The hon. Gentleman has raised the condition issues facing a specific primary school in his constituency. I understand the challenge the school is facing with its buildings, many as a result of the refurbishment and the expansion carried out by the local authority with Carillion in 2015, about three years before the company went into liquidation.

I recognise that Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council can no longer pursue Carillion for redress on that project, following its liquidation in 2018. It has invested its own capital funding to address issues at the school over recent years. As the hon. Gentleman said, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary with responsibility for the school system recently met him and representatives from the council to discuss those issues. I have been speaking to her successor today. I alerted her to the debate and can assure the hon. Gentleman that she is determined to deliver for the school system in a way that achieves value for money but also delivers according to need.

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has assured us that the school is currently safe and operational. I know, however, that a number of issues remain, such as leaking roofs, uneven floors, inadequately installed fire doors and, most significantly, the inadequate drainage that has led to repeated flooding. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department will continue to engage with the council and, where appropriate, with the Environment Agency and local water boards to consider the wider level of surface water flood risk within the schools and what support would be required. We look forward to reviewing the detailed condition reports from the council once they have been submitted. I checked with officials ahead of the debate: we have not seen them yet, but we are certainly happy to make sure that they are properly engaged with.

I reassure the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that the Government treat every school throughout England on a consistent basis. As I will set out, our condition funding and rebuilding programmes are targeted at schools in the worst condition, regardless of which constituency they are in and whether they are academy trusts or local authority maintained.

I perfectly accept what the Minister is saying, but does he recognise that one of the flaws of the condition survey is that it is basically sending somebody to look at the school? Aesthetically, Russell Scott looks modern—fit for purpose, wonderful—but we do not have to scratch very hard to see that that is not really the case. However, it was given an A grading by the school condition survey.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; I was just coming to that. Our school condition allocations are based on a consistent way, regarding the relative condition of schools. The data provides a consistent picture of relative condition, helping to inform funding allocations. We recognise, though, that it is a non-invasive survey and that does not assess structural issues, for example, which appear to be the issue in this case. It is not intended to be a substitute for the more detailed condition reports that local authorities use to prioritise investment across their schools, based on local knowledge.

We are currently consulting on the approach to prioritising schools for future rounds of the new school rebuilding programme and we expect there to be opportunities for evidence of severe condition needs to be submitted for consideration for that programme. More broadly, I am pleased that six schools in Tameside have benefited from new or refurbished buildings through the Department’s priority school rebuilding programme. In 2021-22, Tameside council also received an annual school condition allocation of £1.3 million to address condition issues at its schools and, over the past five years, it has received £9.1 million in total.[Official Report, 23 September 2021, Vol. 701, c. 2MC.] In February 2021, we announced that Tameside will receive £6.3 million to provide new school places needed in 2023.

I want to refer back to All Saints school. The school was inspected following my meeting with Baroness Berridge, and although it was acknowledged that it had significant premises challenges, it has not yet progressed on to a capital funding programme. Will the Minister look at how a school such as All Saints can go forward in that programme?

The hon. Lady has made her case very clearly, and I can assure her that officials have been engaging with the diocese about the school. I am certainly happy to make sure that my ministerial counterpart in the Lords, who is responsible for this area, follows through on that commitment.

The Department expects schools and those responsible for school buildings to manage their estate in an efficient and effective way, working proactively to comply with the relevant regulations, and to plan maintenance programmes. That is why we are supporting schools with advice, tools and resources such as good estate management and guidance on managing asbestos. We also provide support to get best value, including free access to our procurement frameworks.

I move on to how the Department provides support in maintaining and improving the condition of the wider school estate. Responsibility for identifying and addressing concerns in schools lies with the relevant local authorities, academy trusts or voluntary aided school bodies. They can prioritise available resources and funding to keep schools open and safe, based on local knowledge of their estates. Day-to-day maintenance, checks and minor repairs are typically funded from school revenue; we also provide annual capital funding to schools and those responsible for school buildings so that they can invest in improving the condition of their buildings and meet their duties to maintain a safe school estate.

The Department has allocated £11.3 billion in condition funding since 2015, including £1.8 billion in the financial year 2021-22. We also provided an additional £560 million in 2020-21 for essential maintenance and upgrades, on top of more than £1.4 billion already allocated during that year. Schools access capital funding to improve the condition of their building through school condition allocations or the condition improvement fund. School condition allocations are provided to eligible responsible bodies to invest in their schools on the basis of local knowledge. Since 2015, allocations have been informed by consistent data on the condition of buildings across England, so that funding is targeted to where it is needed most. Every school is treated consistently.

The condition improvement fund is an annual bidding round for eligible schools. Bids are robustly assessed against published criteria, and in 2021-22 the funds supported 1,400 projects at 1,200 schools and sixth-form colleges. The fund gives the highest priority to condition projects that address compliance and health and safety issues, which include fire protection systems, gas safety, electrical safety or emergency asbestos removal.

We also provide schools with annual devolved formula capital allocations to spend on smaller projects or purchases in line with their priorities. Capital funding for future years will be determined by the spending review, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, as well as the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who intervened on him, for the extent to which their speeches inform and reinforce our submission to that review.

In addition to annual condition funding, we centrally deliver major rebuilding programmes. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the Prime Minister announced a new school rebuilding programme last June; we have confirmed the first 100 schools in the programme as part of a commitment to 500 projects over the next decade. The programme will transform the education of thousands of pupils around the country, and continue to benefit children and their teachers for decades to come. It will replace poor condition and ageing school buildings with modern facilities, and all new buildings delivered through the programme will be net zero carbon in operation, contributing to the Government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets.

The first projects include primary and secondary schools, as well as a sixth-form college and special and alternative provision settings. One example is Lytham St Annes High School in Lancashire. The original school building was built in the 1950s, with later extensions in the ’60s and ’70s. The Department is funding the replacement of the main building and sports hall, with a separate sports hall in a new build two-storey block.

The programme represents a substantial investment in schools in the midlands and the north of England, with 70 of the first 100 projects located in those regions. We have published the methodology used to prioritise the first 100 schools, and we are consulting on how schools could be prioritised for inclusion in the future. We want that to be inclusive and effective. The consultation closes on 8 October, and we will set out plans for future rounds of the programme in 2022. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will appreciate that I cannot make specific commitments about future rounds of the funding, but he has set out his position very clearly and placed it firmly on the record. It will certainly be taken into account.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a named official—a point of contact—and I am very happy to follow up on that after the debate; he will understand why I will not name an official on the Floor of the Chamber. However, my understanding is that conversations about both the application for support and the contingency planning are going on between my officials at the DFE and those people at Tameside council. I am certainly happy to take this forward, and I congratulate him on making his case so strongly.

Question put and agreed to.