I beg to move,
That an humble address be presented to His Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there will be laid before this House by 5 June 2023 a document or dataset containing the detailed school level data, including condition grades for individual building elements for all schools, from the latest Condition of School Buildings Survey.
This debate is taking place just over a year since the public, parents, school staff and children learned—not from a ministerial statement in this House but from a document leaked to The Observer—that many school buildings in England are in such a state of disrepair that they are a risk to life. It has been a full year and still the Government have not shared information with parents and the wider public about which schools, which buildings, and how much of a risk to life. Labour has tabled this motion to require Ministers finally to be up front with school staff, parents and pupils about the true state of our school buildings, the extent of disrepair, and their neglect over the last 13 years. Conservative MPs will have the opportunity to vote with Labour in the public interest and to do what is right by their constituents.
I am sure that the Minister will point to the condition improvement fund announced yesterday. At the third time of asking, a school in my constituency has finally received some funding so that it can at least comply with legal requirements on the boiler and the drains. Enabling schools to comply with legal requirements that the Government set out should be an absolute basic, but it has taken three rounds of bidding to get to that stage. I know that Members on both sides of the House will have had exactly the same experience.
The parlous state of school buildings is a national disgrace. It is shameful, and it comes from a Government and a Department who have given up on ambition for our children. They have given up on openness, given up on accountability, given up on standards and given up on improvement. It comes from a Government whose failed Schools Bill had little to offer schools other than ridiculous micromanagement from Whitehall. A Government who are out of ideas and short on ambition. A Government whose poverty of ambition has been failing our children for 13 long years. That poverty of ambition stretches far beyond the buildings themselves and right across our country, right over the course of lives and right over the whole of our education system.
I spoke to Jim Roebuck, the deputy headteacher of West Hampstead Primary School in my constituency. He told me that the school’s roof is in dire need of repair, the tarmac on the playground is dangerously uneven and a lot of the windows will not open properly, so the school has spent thousands of pounds buying fans for the summer months. He is clear that he is grateful for the investment that Camden Council has put into the school, but the reality is that if all of the repairs were to be addressed, that would cost thousands of pounds that the council does not have and the school does not have. The school is rated “good” and the teachers are excellent, but does my hon. Friend believe that children are fulfilling their full potential if there is no capital funding from the Government?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful case on behalf of her constituents and the school concerned. I have heard stories like that right across the country. The difficulty we have is that we do not know the full scale of the challenge because Ministers refuse to publish the data. What we do know, however, is that the Government have a sticking-plaster approach, patching up problems and not seriously addressing the challenges that we face. We cannot even be confident that the money is being spent in the areas of greatest need, because the Government will not be transparent about that.
The shadow Secretary of State is making an excellent speech. The gymnasium of Highgate Wood School is being patched up endlessly. Does she agree that it is financially illiterate to continue to patch up when a new build would be so easy and much, much cheaper to put in place?
Like my hon. Friend, I have seen countless examples across the country of the short-term approach the Government are taking. It is our children, parents and school staff who lose out. I am sure we will hear a lot more examples, including from those on the Government Benches, during the course of today’s debate.
One of my schools in Tipton is built under a PFI—private finance initiative—contract. I am sure the hon. Lady remembers those. Between the £40,000 bill for standard repairs or buying school books, what would she advise them to do?
My suggestion and the advice I would offer to the hon. Gentleman is to ask the Minister exactly what the state of school funding has been like over the last 13 years. His Government have been in power now for longer than the last Labour Government. He ought to take some responsibility for the state of schools in our country, not to blame others and not to deflect.
My hon. Friend is, in her usual fashion, making an excellent speech. Does she agree with me that one of the reasons Government Members will not release the data is that they know that over the last decade 50% of the capital budget has been cut through their ideological austerity agenda?
I think we probably all have reasons to reflect on why the Government will not be upfront about that. There are many reasons why that might be the case, but we have the Minister with us today. He can tell us why he said previously that he would publish this and why he has now changed his mind. I look forward to hearing him set out that case during the debate.
The lack of ambition is there for our children in their earliest years. The vision of childcare is little wider than a way of keeping parents economically active. There is nothing on the start we should give our children—the best start they deserve—or on the power of early intervention to change lives for the better and the difference that early years education makes in building a brighter future and a better Britain. There is nothing to close the attainment gaps that were already opening up and widening as our children arrived at school long before the pandemic even hit. And the answer to the childcare workforce challenge is as bleak as it is simple: to spread existing staff more thinly, to pile demand on to a system that they know fails providers, parents, families and, above all, our children.
The lack of ambition is there for our schools, too.
The Headingley Children’s Centre building in my constituency recently closed due to roof disrepair rendering it condemned. The staff are still working in temporary accommodation, but the building closure has had a devastating effect on the excellent services provided by the centre, particularly for vulnerable children of trafficked women seeking asylum. It is the Government’s lack of investment that has led to the closure. Leeds City Council’s commitment to children has been exemplary. It made a significant commitment to funding another joint initiative with Public Health England to ensure that health visitors and midwives will be able to work from the new centre. Without a building, however, they will not be able to do that. Should the Government not come forward with capital funding for a new building?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the impact we can all see in our communities when we bring together services to support children and families. We, all of us, know the difference the last Labour Government made around the Sure Start programme in making sure all our children got the best possible start in life, and the evidence around that is even clearer now than it was then.
I think it was last week that the figures came out on children’s reading and it was discovered, on international assessment, that our young children are the best readers in the western world. Does the hon. Lady welcome that news?
I looked very carefully at all the data that was published, and I pay tribute to our amazing teachers and school support staff who have been involved in making sure that our children get the best possible start in life. I will always be led by the evidence on what is right for children and what is best for their futures. The one area that, I have to say, did slightly trouble me was that, sadly, we see too few of our children enjoying reading. I think all of us want to ensure that as well as getting that really strong foundation, all our children leave school with a love of reading too. There is much there we can welcome and much to praise when it comes to the amazing staff in our schools, but I do not think any of us can be complacent, coming out of the pandemic, about the scale of the challenge that so many of our children and young people are facing.
There is a real lack of ambition for our schools. While the crumbling structures of too many of our schools are all too real, they double as a metaphor for wider problems. Our schools face a recruitment and retention crisis, as teachers and school staff leave the profession in their droves. At the same time, initial teacher training—the pipeline for newly qualified teachers into the classroom—fails to meet recruitment targets in key subjects year after year. It would be laughable were it not so tragic that the Prime Minister believes that ever more children can be taught maths for longer, with even fewer maths teachers. Perhaps the Minister can answer a question on that: if the Government are responsible for the education system, one in 10 maths lessons is already taught by teachers with no relevant post-18 qualification, they want every young person to learn maths until they are 18 and they have no plan to attract more maths teachers, how many more of our young people will end up being taught maths by non-specialist teachers?
It is not just maths. Too many young people face a narrow curriculum, missing out on creative and enriching opportunities. Too many leave school neither ready for work nor ready for life, but why? Because the wider school system is not delivering for our children. We have an accountability system that simply is not delivering the high and rising standards our children need. It is a system that tells us that almost four in five of our schools are good or outstanding according to Ofsted, in a country where tens of thousands of our children do not get the qualifications they need to succeed.
Either the Government have the wrong idea of what good looks like, or the system they have built is not working to deliver it. Some of our children get good schools, great teachers, rewarding opportunities, the opportunity to achieve, the chance to thrive and the knowledge that success is for them, but too many of our children do not get that start. Labour is determined to change that. Excellence must be for everyone—every child in every school, in every corner of our country.
Although the strengths and weaknesses of our schools are at least public, sadly, the state of their buildings is not. The strengths and weaknesses of so much of what goes on in our schools tend to be clear to parents. They can see when teachers keep leaving. They know when their children no longer get to go on trips to museums and when they are asked to pay for stationery or books. They can see that there are almost no music lessons. They know that their kids do not get the same chances for drama as others. But the fabric of the buildings is something that they generally do not see, because the Government are determined to shroud it in darkness. That cannot be right.
It is 13 years since the Government, led by the Conservative party, cancelled the ambitious programme of the last Labour Government to deliver modern, first-class schools for all our children. In those 13 years, not once has capital spending for the Department of Education matched in real terms the level that it was when the Government entered office. But the test is not the money that the Government put in but the state of the buildings in which our children learn. That tells its own story of how unwilling the Government have become to come clean on that.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In my constituency, under the last Labour Government, Springwell Park Community Primary School, Rimrose Hope C of E Primary School, All Saints Catholic Primary School, Litherland High School and South Sefton further education college were all built, and we got rid of all of the temporary portacabin classrooms. All that was in addition to all the other significant investment by the Labour Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour delivers—we do not just have words?
Like my hon. Friend, I saw the difference that a Labour Government made in transforming life chances through the fabric of our buildings with the transformation of the schools estate across our country, but not just that: lifting children out of poverty; more teachers in our classrooms; children better supported; and Sure Start programmes. That is the difference that the Labour Government made, and it is the difference that we will make once again.
It was in late October 2021 when the now Prime Minister announced as part of his spending review no fresh money for school maintenance and rebuilding, reaffirming 13 long years of continued underfunding of school capital costs. A decision not to fund is a decision to bear the risk. Although Ministers make the decisions, they do not bear the risks—it is not Conservative MPs or any of us in this Chamber. It is the children, their parents and school staff.
When things are not mended, they break; when buildings break, they cause damage. Of course, they do not need to collapse to cause damage. By the Department’s 2019 estimate, over 80% of England’s schools contain at least some asbestos. More than one in six schools complies with the law on asbestos, but not with the Department’s guidance. Almost 700 schools were reported by the Department to the Health and Safety Executive. These are Government estimates and Government decisions. The trade union Unison estimates that at current funding rates, it will take hundreds of years to fully remove dangerous asbestos from the schools estate. How on earth is that good enough?
It is not just asbestos. It is becoming clearer and clearer that there is a problem right across the schools estate, just as there is across the NHS estate, with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, which the Government describes as a “crumbly type of concrete” that is “liable to collapse”. In 2018, we saw exactly that, when the roof of Singlewell Primary School in Kent collapsed without notice, fortunately at the weekend. In the intervening five years, have we seen decisive action from the Government? Have they got a grip of the scale of the problem? Have they set out a timetable by which they will deal with these challenges, to protect children, parents and school staff? Of course they have not. They have circulated a survey, and that is it.
The Government could be matching the ambition of the last Labour Government by rebuilding schools the length and breadth of the country; modernising school buildings, so that they are fit for children to learn in and for staff to work in; raising aspirations and standards for every child, in every community; and giving children the first-class facilities and education that they deserve. Instead, the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), cancelled Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, a botched decision about which even he now admits that mistakes were made. Since then, the revolving door of Education Secretaries have failed to get a grip on the condition of our schools estate, allowing too many buildings and schools to fall into the state of disrepair we see today.
Our motion today is simple, but it is extraordinary that we have to bring it to the House in this form. In May 2021, the key findings of the Government’s condition survey revealed the alarming state of school buildings. In May 2022, an internal Government document was leaked to The Observer newspaper. It revealed that many school buildings in England were already in such disrepair that they were a “risk to life”.
In July 2022, over a year after the summary report, the Minister said in answer to a parliamentary question that the Department was still not committing to a date for publishing the underlying buildings condition survey data. Later in 2022, Ministers had changed their minds. They said it would be published “later this year”. In December 2022, the Minister for Schools said it would be published “by the end” of the year.
Buried in the Department for Education’s annual report, published in December, we read that a revision of the departmental risk register has moved the risk level of school building collapses to “critical: very likely”, after an increase in serious structural issues being reported. The information was not published by the end of 2022, nor was it published in January 2023. February 2023 came and went: nothing. March 2023 came, and again Ministers were not coming clean. April 2023: again, nothing. And here we are in May, two years on from the summary data being published, and there is nothing at once public and specific about the risks and needs of individual schools. What is there to hide? Why will they not come clean with parents and the public?
Concern about the state of school buildings is not limited to Opposition Members but shared across the House. Conservative Members have pressed their concerns, not merely privately but in the Chamber, directly with Ministers, about schools in Norfolk, Dorset, Lancashire, Stoke-on-Trent and Essex. Across our country, schools are crumbling. Some of them are dilapidated, some are rat-infested, and the Government will not tell parents where they are, how bad they are or how bad the issue has become.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a waste of school resources to have to keep bidding for funds for important things such as central heating? The Joseph Leckie Academy in my constituency was allocated funds under Building Schools for the Future but it has to keep rebidding for them.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how we spend public money and how we spend it wisely. Sadly, what we have seen all too often is a sticking plaster approach, as she says, where short-term measures are taken even though in the long run the schools are sometimes beyond repair. Expecting schools to go through this process all the time is not an effective use of public money, but alongside that, we cannot be confident that the money is always spent in the best possible place or where there is the greatest need because Ministers will not tell us where the problems are.
I know that the Minister wants to talk about the schools in which the Government have invested, not those they have not; about the few repairs that they have done, not the many that they have not; and about the announcement that they made yesterday, not the one that we need today. Let me remind Members on both sides of the House of what Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said:
“This is money allocated through an annual bidding programme to address significant needs in terms of the condition of school and college buildings and is most certainly not an example of government largesse.”
He went on:
“It is the bare minimum and nowhere near enough to meet the cost of remedial work to repair or replace all defective elements in the school estate in England”.
Rather than telling parents to be grateful, the Minister should come clean about the schools that are not being repaired, the buildings that are failing, the risks to our children, parents and school staff and the delays that they are enduring while the Government drag their feet. So far this year, the Department has published a list of 1,033 successful bids, which is 375 fewer than in 2022-23. I am always glad when a school gets the repairs it needs, but the story is not the schools that have been repaired; it is the ones that have not—or that have, but after goodness knows how long.
The wording of the motion presents Conservative Members with a simple choice: between their constituents and their Government; between openness and secrecy; and above all, between party and country. The choice is simple: a vote, in the public interest, to tell parents, young people and school staff what the Government know about the safety of their schools; or a vote with Ministers to keep that information hidden. I commend the motion to the House.
As I am sure colleagues can see, this is a well-subscribed debate so I might have to put on a time limit. I would like to advise that it would be worth aiming for a maximum of six minutes to start with. Depending on the opening speech from the Minister, I might have to put an actual time limit on, but my advice at the moment is to start at six minutes.
Let us not forget that under the last Labour Government, this country was falling in the international league tables on education standards in our schools. This Government, by contrast, are committed to making sure that every child in this country gets a first-class education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. If the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) looked at international education surveys such as last week’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—on the reading ability of nine-year-olds, she would see that education standards in this country continue to rise under this Government and thanks to the hard work of hundreds of thousands of teachers and teaching assistants in this country.
My right hon. Friend is right to praise the hard-working teachers in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, but he too deserves praise for being brave enough to be led by the evidence on phonics, as was mentioned by the shadow Education Secretary. Without his early intervention, despite opposition from Labour, we would not have seen that massive climb, and I congratulate him on ensuring that children had the best opportunities and the best start in life.
It is very kind of my hon. Friend to say that. I believe that that was due to the hard work of our teachers and the fact that the Government challenged some of the prevailing orthodoxies that were failing too many of our children. That is why we came fourth in the world out of 43 countries that tested children of the same age. I do not believe that any Labour Government would have the guts to challenge those orthodoxies, because they are so close to, and in hock to, the unions.
If the hon. Gentleman had asked that question when he and his party were in government, he could not have been answered because there were no comprehensive surveys of the standard of our school estate, whereas this Government have conducted two full surveys and are in the process of conducting a third.
If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to set the scene before giving way.
Nothing is more important than the safety of pupils and of those who work in our schools. School buildings that are well maintained and safe are an essential part of delivering a high-quality education. Despite the shadow Minister’s grudging mention of a successful bid to the £450 million condition improvement fund announced yesterday, I congratulate Farringdon Community Academy in her constituency on its successful £1.5 million bid.[Official Report, 7 June 2023, Vol. 733, c. 9MC.]
There are a number of ways in which we help schools to manage their estates. We do this mainly by providing capital funding, delivering major rebuilding programmes and offering guidance and support. Responsibility for keeping buildings safe, well maintained and compliant with relevant regulations lies with schools and the relevant local authority, academy trust or voluntary aided school body. Their local knowledge of their buildings means they are best placed to identify and prioritise issues so that schools are kept safe and in good working condition. Nevertheless, we gather data about the school estate to understand how the condition of school buildings changes over time, to make sure funding and support are effectively allocated, and to make sure we identify risks.
The Government carried out a major review of the school estate in 2014, since when we have completed one of the largest surveys in the UK public sector, in which we reviewed nearly every state school in the country, and we are undertaking a further major survey. To address the challenges in the school estate, we first needed a true understanding of its condition, which is why it is so disappointing that, over the 13 years of the last Labour Government, there was not a single comprehensive review of the condition of the school estate. We had a lot of work to do when we came into office in 2010, but now we have the full data.
I have had many conversations with the Minister over the years, and I respect him. Frankly, many of us in the Chamber today do not know whether the schools in our constituencies are safe, because the Government will not release the data. That is the central question we want addressing. The Minister in the other place wrote this week to tell me that three schools in my constituency will benefit from the condition improvement fund. Should I take it that those schools are currently unsafe for pupils?
No. The hon. Gentleman can take it that those three schools are receiving significant sums of capital funding to put right problems on their estate. Our surveys enabled us to identify those problems and to allocate significant sums of capital funding—£15 billion since 2015—fairly and appropriately.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is generous with his time.
How far up the priority list is the problem of asbestos? I have been raising Fortismere School in this House since three Prime Ministers ago, and the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister for a bit, then he was not and now he is again. My schools have seen quite a few Ministers and Prime Ministers come and go, yet the asbestos is still there. When will Fortismere School have its asbestos removed?
Asbestos management in schools and other buildings is regulated by the Health and Safety Executive, as the hon. Lady will know. As part of that, the Department has published bespoke guidance on asbestos management. The “Asbestos management assurance process” was a survey launched in 2018 to understand the steps that schools are taking to manage asbestos. The DFE published a report of the overall findings in 2019, which showed that there are no systemic issues with schools’ management of asbestos. The HSE advises that as long as asbestos-containing materials are in good condition, well-protected and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it is usually safer to manage them in situ. But where they are dangerous, they of course take priority in all the capital bids that schools make.
The condition of buildings and premises is dynamic. We know that buildings need looking after and maintaining, which is why we have allocated more than £15 billion to improve the condition of schools since 2015, including £1.8 billion committed in this financial year. We allocate funding by taking into account the data we have on the condition of schools, so that schools in relatively poorer condition attract more funding. In December, we also made an additional £500 million of capital funding available to improve buildings and facilities, prioritising energy-efficiency. In addition to providing annual capital funding, our 10-year school rebuilding programme is committed to rebuilding or refurbishing school buildings in poor condition across England. We pledged to upgrade 500 schools in this programme, and we have already announced 400, including 239 in December, reserving some places for the future.
I am impressed that the Minister manages to maintain a relaxed, calm tone when talking about this, because Councillor Jess Bailey, from my part of Devon, has said:
“I have witnessed children as young as four and five practising their escape drill with a rope across the road to prevent children being swept away in the rising waters.”
Tipton St John Church of England Primary School, which she is describing, has been identified to join the school rebuilding programme, but my concern is that such schools are being rebuilt at a rate of 50 per year —projects are commencing at that rate. Yesterday, I learned that the west country received the lowest allocation in respect of condition improvement fund bids in the country. I question whether the west country is being looked after by this Department.
The hon. Gentleman almost answered his own question, because I understand that the school he referred to was successful in the school rebuilding programme. It is difficult to respond to hon. Members’ questions and concerns when they highlight the fact that schools are rebuilt and that where there are serious problems with them, capital funding is available under a range of funds that schools bid into.
To qualify for the school rebuilding programme, schools such as the one the hon. Gentleman mentioned were assessed on their condition. Nominations for inclusion in the programme could involve including evidence of buildings in exceptionally poor condition or of potential safety issues. The bids were robustly evaluated by specialists and in the latest round all nominated schools with verified structural issues that met the programme’s criteria were included in the programme.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that I have raised the issue of Russell Scott Primary School in Denton on multiple occasions. He lays great weight on the survey that the DFE does, but in 2018 that school passed that survey with flying colours, even though the headteacher knew that it should not have done. It is now in the Government’s rebuilding programme because it is falling down. Will he look again at the survey data and the quality of that collection to make sure that such schools do not fall through the net?
Yes. That is another intervention criticising us for another success, where a school is being rebuilt. We do keep updating these surveys, which is why we had the initial survey and then the condition data collection, CDC1, which is what this debate is about. We have already commenced CDC2, which will report by 2026, I believe. This is about making sure that we keep that information up to date and relevant to all the schools.
Last December, I had the chance to visit Guiseley School in Yorkshire, where I saw for myself the transformative effect that the new, modern buildings being provided will make to the entire school community. That was under the school rebuilding programme. Littleborough Primary School in Rochdale celebrated the handover of its new buildings in March, the first school to do so under the programme. I am pleased to say that a further three schools—Whitworth Community High School, Lytham St Annes High School and Tarleton Academy—are also now using their new buildings, which were refurbished or rebuilt under the school rebuilding programme.[Official Report, 7 June 2023, Vol. 733, c. 10MC.]
The Minister has said that he either cannot or will not publish the data from CDC1, but on 21 February, in response to a written question from me, the Minister confirmed that 39 schools have been either partially or fully closed since the last general election because they were deemed unsafe. He refused to name those schools or say how many were in each region in subsequent written questions from me, and his Department is now late in responding to a freedom of information request from my team asking for that data. Will he commit today to publish which schools were affected before the House rises for recess? If he will not do so, will he say why not?
I ask the hon. Member to hold off, because I am trying to create a sense of anticipation for the answer to this debate. We will come to the point that she has made on CDC1 later in my speech. May I also mention that her local authority received almost £1.2 million in school condition allocation for 2023-24 to address these very issues in her local authority area?
It is not just the school community that benefits from this capital spending. Construction projects support jobs and create apprenticeships and T-level placements. The Department is using its experience with innovative methods of construction to support more highly skilled jobs and improve productivity. Our procurement frameworks provide opportunities across the industry and enable small and medium-sized enterprises to benefit from the opportunities that a long pipeline of projects brings.
Furthermore, the earlier priority school building programme has handed over new buildings at more than 500 schools, as part of its commitment to delivering 532 projects overall. We are now building schools more quickly, more efficiently and better targeted on need than ever before. Since 2010, we have reformed our capital programme to bring down the cost of school building. The James Review of Education Capital in 2011 had found that the Building Schools for the Future programme was overly bureaucratic and did not deliver cost-efficient buildings of consistent quality.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I welcome the money announced yesterday for St George’s Academy and for North Kesteven Academy in my constituency, which will be very welcome. I was also very excited last Thursday to go to the Sir William Robertson Academy, also in my constituency, which has been part of the school rebuilding programme. It is very excited about the project, but there are some technical issues that need to be addressed, and I wonder whether he will meet me to discuss them.
I will be delighted to discuss those technical issues with my hon. Friend. It is interesting because, again, she cites more successful bids under the various capital funds that we are allocating to make sure that schools are properly repaired, but she had the good grace to thank the taxpayer for that funding for her schools.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He was talking about anticipation. There is a lot of anticipation from schools on the rebuilding programme in my constituency, given the rate at which schools are being rebuilt. I am pleased to see them on the list, but it is really difficult for people to continue to work in those schools when they have been identified as needing to be rebuilt.
Yes, again, the hon. Lady is pleased to see those schools on the list. With approximately 22,000 schools and sixth-form colleges and 64,000 blocks, our school estate is huge, and it is inevitable that some of it is ageing, with more buildings reaching the end of their life. That is why we have a 10-year rebuilding programme, and why we allocate capital funding every year. It is true that we have raised our assessment of the level of risk in the estate and the Department is helping the sector to manage that risk. The risk rating, which the shadow Secretary of State referred to in her opening speech, reflects the overall age of buildings in the estate and that we have worked with schools to resolve more issues with their buildings.
Although we cannot turn back the clock on age—as we all know—or on design, we can improve the effective life expectancy of individual buildings through regular inspections, maintenance and upgrades over time. I can assure the House that, once the Department is made aware of a building that poses risks, immediate action is taken, including closing buildings where necessary.
The shadow Secretary of State raised the important issue of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in some schools. The Department is urgently working to identify which schools have RAAC and to provide them with support. In March 2022 we sent a questionnaire to all bodies responsible for school buildings, asking them to provide information on whether RAAC is present in any of their schools. Last October, my noble Friend the Minister for the School System wrote to responsible bodies that were yet to respond, as well as to council leaders, highlighting the importance the Department placed on identifying RAAC in schools.
We follow up individually every school that reports it might have RAAC, sending a technical adviser to confirm its presence and assess its condition. If RAAC is confirmed, we then ensure that appropriate and rapid action is taken to address any immediate risk, based on professional advice. We also provide additional support as and when it is needed. In that way, we try to ensure that closures are only ever a last resort and any disruption is kept to a minimum.
Funding should not be a barrier to safety, and any academy trust, local authority or voluntary aided school body that has identified a serious issue with its buildings that it cannot manage should contact the Department for advice. Where RAAC is confirmed, we will support schools and colleges in England and fund capital measures, such as temporary buildings, that are required to ensure that it does not pose any immediate risk. We will support affected schools and colleges through that process.
I mentioned data earlier; let me now expand on that. We have significantly improved our understanding of the condition of the school estate through our condition data collection programmes, which provide us with robust evidence for distributing capital funding fairly to where it is most needed.
The first comprehensive review of the condition of the school estate was the property data survey, carried out from 2012 to 2014. It was followed by the CDC programme from 2017 to 2019, which was one of the largest data collections of its kind and covered the condition of almost all 22,000 schools and 260 further education colleges in England. It was carried out by qualified building surveyors and mechanical engineers to provide a picture of the condition of our school and college buildings on a consistent basis.
Its successor programme, condition data collection 2, is now underway and will be completed by 2026. It will update the CDC1 assessments of all Government-funded schools and further education colleges in England. Individual CDC reports were shared with every school, academy trust, local authority and voluntary aided body responsible for those schools immediately after its survey was completed, to help inform its investment plans alongside its own more detailed condition surveys and safety checks.
We are also committed to publishing more detailed data as soon as possible. It is an extremely large dataset, with 1.2 billion data points, and it is taking some time to prepare it for publication in a useful format, but we are none the less preparing it, and I can give a commitment that we will publish as soon as possible, and certainly before the summer recess.
The condition data collection has given us a vital snapshot of the overall condition of the school estate. Positive early indications from our CDC2 data collection and feedback from responsible bodies show that in almost every case where a D grade was identified in the CDC1 report, it has since been addressed.
The CDC is a visual survey, primarily used to help us ensure that funds go where they are most needed. It provides a condition grade from A, meaning good, to D, for life expired, for all school building elements. Where there are different grades of condition apparent across a building component, a percentage grade is applied. A condition grade, for example, can be 95% A and 5% D for a building component. That is not a substitute for more detailed specialist reports or checks that might be commissioned by academy trusts or local authorities, or for ongoing monitoring of buildings by those who use or work in them.
The Minister has been very kind in meeting with me and heads of schools in my constituency. I know he takes this seriously, but how confident is he that all these assessments are correct? David Smith, who is the head of Blue Coat Church of England Academy in my constituency, has said that there are material errors in some of the assessments that have been made, and that is why the school has been turned down.
As I said, this is a visual survey of the condition of schools. I am always happy to meet not only hon. Members but headteachers, and we can have officials who specialise in this area present to explain why a particular school did not meet the conditions in a bid.
There are many aspects of estate management that need the input of qualified professionals, including when specific issues arise. Those might include fire safety, asbestos or structural surveys, for example, as well as regular gas, electrical and water safety checks. We are clear that those risks need to be assessed and managed at a local level, taking into account how buildings are used and underpinned by professional advice. The most effective way of doing that is for those with day-to-day control of sites to manage their buildings well. Only they have direct knowledge of the buildings, changes in their condition and how they are used.
I can assure the House that the safety of everyone in our schools, whether they are studying, supporting or teaching, is paramount. We are investing billions of pounds in renewing buildings and providing academy trusts, local authorities and schools with the right support and guidance they need to manage the school and college estate effectively. We are committed to publishing data we have collected through the condition data collection programme and to supporting schools across the country, and for that reason, I urge all colleagues to vote against the motion this evening.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate on the critical issue of the safety of school buildings. Today I want to talk about Grange Park Primary School in my constituency, which provides an excellent education for the pupils that attend it, in spite of the appalling condition of the building. It is truly a credit to the pupils, parents, teachers and the school community that they make it such a great place to learn in such circumstances.
The school was built in 1931. My own father attended the school in the ’30s, in a building that was at that time, almost 100 years ago, fit for purpose. Now, sadly, it is anything but. Grange Park Primary School was recently omitted from the school rebuilding programme, despite a number of capital failures in the building affecting walls, roofs, windows and mechanical and electrical services. I could provide the Minister with the images now. It has cracks in the internal and external brickwork over 1 cm wide—in a number of cases, wide enough to fit a pen in. It has huge cracks going up to the roof and over the roof to the chimney. There is damage to important structural elements above the windows, and it has widespread damp due to roof failures, broken windows and building movement, yet it does not qualify for funds.
I ask the Minister, why? After the CDC survey, his own DFE officials contacted the local authority to warn of the alarming condition the building was in. Would he be comfortable sending children to learn in those conditions? Does he deem this building a safe place to learn in? I would like to ask the Minister why this school building in my constituency, which so obviously needs a huge amount of investment, care and attention at the minimum, and in all likelihood a rebuild, has been omitted from the school rebuilding programme. The parents, teachers and pupils of Grange Park Primary School deserve answers, so I hope the Minister can provide them today.
When we talk about the safety of school buildings, we are talking about the very minimum that is required for a child to learn, and we are talking about the simple things that we as a country should expect from our education system and its infrastructure and from our Government. How are our young people supposed to learn and fulfil their potential when their school buildings are not fit for purpose or their school environment is crumbling around them? It is not conducive to encouraging hope and opportunity, and it does not show belief from this Government in our young people.
It is clear that the Conservatives’ mismanagement of the education system has become a hallmark of this Conservative Government over their 13 years in power, and that a lack of care and attention to our education sector is having a real effect on our children’s future. That is reflected in the alarming numbers involved: between 2009 and 2022, the Department’s capital spending declined by over a third in cash terms and by a half in real terms. These are not small numbers or negligible figures, but huge reductions in capital spending on the vital infrastructure that our schools and, indirectly, our young people need. Hiding these problems will only make them worse.
As such, I want to use this opportunity to ask the Minister how many schools in Sunderland and the wider north-east pose a risk to life. Can he really confirm today that every school building in Sunderland, including Grange Park Primary, and in the wider north-east is safe for our young people to enter and learn in? These are simple but important questions that the Government need to answer, and the longer they put this off and hide the scale of the problem, the greater an issue it will become. That is unfortunately what you get after 13 years of Conservative Government: buildings crumbling because the Conservatives will not invest in them, teachers striking because the Conservatives do not value them, and facts hidden because the Conservatives do not like them. First, we need to truly understand the scale of the problems caused by 13 years of Conservative government.
I will finish with one more question: if the evidence at Grange Park Primary is not enough to warrant funding from the school rebuilding programme, what state does a school have to be in to get this Government to invest and rebuild it? It is shameful.
I welcome today’s debate as an opportunity to discuss the very important subject of school capital funding and the safety of our school buildings, and I welcome the detail that my right hon. Friend the Minister has provided about important issues such as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.
I congratulate the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), on highlighting this issue, but I will not be supporting the Opposition’s call for a Humble Address. That is partly because, as my right hon. Friend made clear, it is unnecessary, as the information will be coming forward very shortly, but it is also because I suspect the Opposition’s motive in bringing today’s debate is more about creating fear and trying to paint the Government as not caring about school safety than it is about actual transparency. I echo my right hon. Friend’s comments: the Government do take school safety extremely seriously, and always have done. That is borne out by the very small number of necessary school closures that have been required, the billions invested in school facilities through both local authorities and the condition improvement fund, and the very fact that school safety features so highly on the Department’s own public risk register.
I expect the Government to communicate clearly and efficiently with Members across the House when it comes to concerns that relate to the safety, capacity or quality of facilities in their schools. In that regard, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s reassurance that the data from reports has already been shared with schools and the people who run them, and his promise that more information will be published before the summer recess. Speaking from my experience as a Minister, I pay tribute to the dedicated officials at the Department for Education who work in this area for what they do to secure funding every year from the Treasury, highlighting both risks and opportunities to Ministers.
I also pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Barran, who has led for the Government in this area over the past few years. The fact that it is a Lords Minister who has responsibility for schools capital has some advantages for the Department as a corporate entity, as it avoids that individual coming under undue pressure from colleagues in this House to put individual local interests ahead of more fundamental considerations such as safety. However, it is also sometimes a challenge for Members of this House in getting their legitimate concerns heard.
I have no doubt whatsoever about the rigour and impartiality of the Department’s decision-making process when it comes to allocating funds to schools, but Members of this House may sometimes feel a legitimate desire for more accountability. The fact that my excellent right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools opened the debate and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education will be responding to it, neither of whom has any direct responsibility for schools capital, does rather illustrate the point. I know that during my time as Minister for School Standards, I had more questions relating to capital and school rebuilding than any other subject, yet I had no policy responsibility for that subject. I will leave it to others to determine whether that situation should change, but we might build more trust in the process for allocating capital to schools if Members had more opportunity to engage directly with the Minister responsible for it.
We will hear much discussion about the merits and demerits of the school rebuilding programme, the priority school rebuilding programme, and the schools that might benefit from them. For my part, it is a matter of some regret that Worcester has not so far benefited from the programmes, but there have been benefits in my constituency: over £100 million of basic need funding over the period in which I have been MP, numerous condition improvement fund allocations, a brand new alternative provision free school, a new primary free school in north Worcester, where there was desperate need for new places, the complete rebuilding of the Tudor Grange Academy, and significant expansion and investment at both my colleges, the Worcester Sixth Form College and Heart of Worcestershire College.
We heard this week about new allocations from the condition improvement fund, and I understand that more than £1 million will be coming to Worcester schools in this year’s allocation alone, including the Christopher Whitehead Language College, Hollymount School, where I used to work as a volunteer, Nunnery Wood Primary School, which I visited last week, and Honeywell Primary School. Over the past few years, we have also seen CIF grants to Stanley Road Primary School in central Worcester, Bishop Perowne C of E College, Northwick Manor Primary School, Newbridge Short Stay School, and Regency High School, our secondary special school.
I welcome the Government’s targeted funding towards the expansion of special school places, and the Education Committee heard this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), about the desperate need for that capacity. One of the difficult decisions taken during my time in the Department was that the £2.6 billion funding for special school places needed to be put in front of some of the mainstream sector’s needs. I know that the funding is to be divided between additional capacity in the specialist sector and some for places in the mainstream sector, but I urge Ministers to consider the case for urgently expanding the primary special school provision in Worcester.
I do not have the time to say all the things I would like to have said in this debate, but I urge Ministers to consider a temporary building replacement fund. It would save schools money on their running costs, replace temporary buildings that may have been left in place for too long, and improve the environmental performance and sustainability of the school estate. It would be a small intervention that could make a big difference.
Order. To ensure that the Front-Bench spokespeople have time to respond—that time being only eight minutes each—I will put in place an immediate time limit of four minutes per speech. I am sorry about that, but it is a question of getting everybody in, which I know is desirable.
I will try to speak quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker. In this place, we all want to ensure that children get the best start in life, and a key part of that is their education at school. That is why I am pleased that Labour has brought this motion forward today. Indeed, one of the most rewarding parts of being an MP is visiting our schools and colleges. I enjoy meeting students and their teachers to hear about the achievements of our fantastic local schools in Wakefield, Horbury and Ossett, but the same issue is raised with me time and again: the state of their buildings.
Earlier this year, I visited Highfield School in Ossett, which provides specialist education for pupils from 11 to 19 with severe learning needs. They do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances, but the conversation quickly drifted on to their dilapidated school buildings, including the cost of removing asbestos, with staff describing the school as “riddled” with it, the inability to attach things to a wall for the fear of releasing asbestos fibres, and rising energy and equipment costs because of poor insulation. An assistant headteacher, Mrs Hickey, described numerous occasions on which water has seeped into the roof space, causing ceilings to collapse. With the roof leaking, and no spare classrooms available, some children had to be sent home for the day.
Every day of learning lost has consequences, especially for those with special educational needs. The Department for Education’s May 2021 condition of school buildings survey revealed that it would cost £11.4 billion to replace and repair all the damage in our schools—a figure that must have risen since. NASUWT research shows that at current funding rates, it would take over 400 years to fully remove asbestos from our schools, never mind tackling the countless other structural issues. That is damning.
By some strange coincidence, the Government yesterday released the details of the new round of the condition improvement fund, which will provide £456 million this year, but it is a drop in the ocean and simply offers too little, too late. While I am grateful that four schools in my constituency will receive some limited funding, mainly to replace leaking and damaged roofs, it is far from the long-term solution we need.
I notice, too, that half of my wards—Wakefield East, North and West, which are some of our most deprived communities—will not receive a penny of this money. In fact, over the past three funding rounds, only one school in the inner-city wards has received any funding at all.
This matter is not party political; the Department for Education was the one to sound the alarm bells. In its own annual report, it said:
“There is a risk of collapse…in some schools which are at or approaching the end of their designed life-expectancy”.
The risk level for potential collapse had been escalated to “critical—very likely”. Let me repeat that: the Government judge that it is “very likely” that some blocks in some schools could collapse. That is not all: the Department will not even tell us which schools are at risk of collapse. Is it not right that parents, pupils and teachers should know whether the school is safe for children to learn in? Should that not be a bare minimum? Anticipation was not, I am afraid, the emotion I was feeling during the Minister’s speech—I was angry, concerned and exasperated. As a parent, I want to know whether my school is safe, as do parents across the country.
It is has taken this debate, brought by the Labour party, to call on the Government to let us know which schools are at risk of falling down. I cannot believe I am having to say that. Schools need serious investment, just like they received under the last Labour Government. In contrast, only one school out of 47 in my constituency is on the Government’s school rebuilding programme. Capital funding in education in real terms is now half what it was when Labour left office. That was clear in December, when the Tories identified just 400 schools for rebuilding work out of more than 24,000 schools in England.
The condition of school buildings is important. It affects learning and it is very much why the Government are funding more than 1,000 school improvement programmes through a £1.8 billion investment. That is part of a much wider amount of money being put into schools, with £58.8 billion to come in 2024-25. That will be the largest amount going into schools that there has ever been. My constituency, which runs from Wallingford to Shrivenham, has benefited from that. Schools from Wallingford to Shrivenham have benefited in particular from the condition improvement fund. Nine schools have benefited so far, including Wallingford School and St John’s Primary School yesterday.
While the condition of the building is important, what goes on inside the building is also important. I will never tire of reminding Opposition Members that in 2019 they stood on a manifesto to abolish SATs, Ofsted and academy schools. I would very much like to hear what they think about the fact that we came fourth in the global rankings for reading last week. I would like to hear what they think about their friends at the National Education Union who keep calling strikes in the run-up to exams for children who missed so much school time during covid. What would their approach be to these unions were they in government? Would it be beer and sandwiches? The NEU runs statements every day welcoming whatever Labour says. It runs paid-for social media ads against Conservative colleagues. The NEU clearly thinks it will get a better deal from the Labour party, so what will it be?
I like counting things, and Members will know that the last time we had an education debate, I counted how many times the Leader of the Opposition talked about education in his speech setting out his vision for the country. It was zero. I counted how many policies the Labour party has on education, and there are two. The first is breakfast clubs, a policy Labour likes so much that it has announced it twice, in March 2021 and then again 18 months later. I am afraid that does not count as an additional policy; it is just the same policy being repeated. The other is VAT on private schools, which few people believe would raise any money. It is small fry for the whole of the education system.
What we find over and over again is this sort of student union vibe of bringing motions on education. We have had eight Opposition day motions on education from the Labour party since the general election. The Leader of the Opposition has mentioned it zero times, Labour has two policies on it, but we have had eight debates. Today’s motion is a classic example of that, because there is no policy in it. It does not say whether we are spending too much or too little. It does not say what Labour would do or how it would pay for it. It is just another attempt, as the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) said, to try to strike fear into people about what is going on in our schools.
I am extremely grateful to my Oxfordshire colleague for giving way, and I too have some of our county’s secondary schools. I am curious about whether he has had the same representations as I have had from heads in Oxfordshire, who are desperate for their buildings to be improved. I have one school where the toilets have become such no-go areas that a child said they no longer drink when they are at school because they are scared to go into them. This is a great school—it is outstanding—and what goes on in it is fantastic, but surely he would agree that improvement can be made to school buildings and that the Government need to help.
I said at the start that the condition of school buildings is very important, and as my right hon. Friend the Minister set out, lots of these schools are being rebuilt as part of this. As I said, I have nine that are being rebuilt. To go back to the Labour party, as it is Labour’s motion, if we look at what has happened in Wales, where it is in charge, there has been no audit of schools’ conditions since 2017. Again, it is a case of “Do as we say, not do as we do”.
The Labour party is currently into setting missions. We do not have a lot of policy, but we are told that the shadow Chancellor is stopping a lot of policy because she does not want to make unfunded spending commitments. I do not think it can be that, because we are already up to £90 billion of unfunded spending commitments. It is just that we do not seem to have many in education. However, Labour is into setting missions, which seem to be big statements with no detail about how it will achieve them. Surprise, surprise, but we have not yet had one for education, so I have a suggestion. Let us have a mission for this area, and let us have the Labour party have a big five-year mission to find some education policy.
For years, the Bedford Inclusive Learning and Training Trust has raised concerns about insufficient funding for its three special educational needs schools in Kempston—St John’s School, Grange Academy and Greys Education Centre. Yesterday, they heard that they were successful in their most recent condition improvement funding bids to pay for heating, safeguarding and flat roof covering. Obviously, they will be relieved to hear that the begging bowl will not come back empty this year, but what a waste of precious time, energy and resources for schools to have to jump through these ludicrous hoops for vital, and what should be routine, repairs.
In 2019, I received a heartfelt plea from a dedicated headteacher, who was distraught that her pupils, some of the most vulnerable in society, were being taught in dilapidated classrooms. Over the years, Grange Academy had been forced to continually invest in patching up the seriously deteriorating buildings and 40-year-old portacabin classrooms, which were only ever meant to exist as a temporary measure. Despite the obvious need for investment, the school had just lost its first bid for capital funding. I learned that the school had failed in its funding application because it did not score enough points. Schools and colleges can increase their marks, I was told, if they are able to make a significant contribution towards the proposed project. How was a school already underfunded by the Government, with no reserves, expected to take out a loan even to qualify for funding to fix dilapidated classrooms?
After years of trying, I am pleased to say that there was a happy ending. It was a joy to attend the opening of the £2 million teaching block at Grange Academy in Kempston last September. The lesson I learned is that schools should not be pitted against each other to compete, or have to feel so humbly grateful to receive piecemeal funding to cover the basic costs of running a school in a safe and suitable environment. What do we get back these days for paying the highest tax in 70 years? Schools are now counting the cost of a decade of under-investment and the Government’s reckless decision to abandon the Building Schools for the Future programme.
If the Government will not listen to the unions—a number of unions have written to the Government, but I am sure they will ignore their requests—how about listening to the Royal Institute of British Architects? RIBA has called for any school buildings with structural safety risks to be immediately assessed, with interim safety measures put in place and all necessary works scheduled in an urgent programme. Ministers and the Department for Education must heed these warnings, take action to secure the safety of the school estate now and stop this ridiculously time-consuming bidding for funds system that introduces pointless bureaucracy and unnecessary costs.
It has certainly been an interesting debate so far, and first we should look at the points that we all agree on across the House, which is that having a safe and secure place where a child can be educated is fundamental to their achievements and ability to progress. I welcome the announcement yesterday that two schools in my constituency, Silvertrees Academy and Ocker Hill Academy, both in Tipton, have received funding as part of the condition improvement fund. That is welcome because we see the tangible benefits of that funding. Part of that will go to ensure a much needed and long overdue boiler upgrade in the school. Things like that—tangible things on the ground—are important.
I have been trying to get across a point about the tone of the debate, and the criticisms from Labour Members about capital investment in schools. When I sit with schools, and they tell me how the legacy of the private finance initiative means that they have to choose between resourcing the education of children or doing basic maintenance—I am sorry, but it is laughable. I sit with headteachers who are pleading with me and going, “Shaun, I don’t know what to do”, and they have 300-page contracts—that is the legacy of PFI. I am sure Labour Members are proud of that legacy—they are very muted, so I am assuming maybe not.
We all agree that capital investment in the safety of our schools is important. As the Minister said, it is important that we get localised data in the right way, and ensure that that comes from the front line. Gathering that local data, and having people understand where it has come from, is important to gain a fuller picture. We also agree that it is important to try to find alternate ways to do that data collection quickly and in a way that is accessible. I know the Minister is keen on that broader point of accessibility and stakeholder engagement, and perhaps it is something we might discuss at some point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to understand things is to go and look and to see? I understand that the shadow Education Secretary will be visiting my Sedgefield constituency soon. Will she visit the schools that are getting rebuilt at the moment, such as Ferryhill Station School, Greenfield Community College, Woodham Academy and so on, or will she go somewhere else and make a political point?
I cannot second guess what the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) will do, but there is a broader point here. The shadow Secretary of State talked about education outcomes. I was a product of the education system under the new Labour Government, and I remember having to be taught in portacabins, roofs nearly falling in, and leaking buildings. The land of milk and honey that Labour Members portray—I’m sorry but I lived through it. I do not know what history they were living in at the time. We also saw that in our educational attainment levels: English, down from 8th to 25th, maths down, science down—that is the legacy of Labour in government and their educational attainment rate. Low ambition Labour, it is as simple as that. Indeed, my communities in Sandwell have suffered from 50 years of low ambition Labour, with attainment rates in secondary schools some of the lowest in the country. Labour Members can talk about 13 years of this or that, but we have had half a century of them, and unfortunately our outcomes have tanked through the floor. That is the legacy of the Labour party.
Let us look at this in a broader way. We all agree that we need capital investment and to ensure that that is based on facts and data that we can analyse. In an intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about the bidding process. I appreciate that this is a point of contention, but perhaps when the shadow Minister responds to the debate he could outline whether it is Labour’s policy completely to abolish bidding in any capital investment and how that would work. More importantly, we would all love to know how Labour will pay for it. Will we all just go, “Yeah, great, here we go, crack on”?
When it comes to Labour’s record on capital investment in our school system, the truth is that it is all on tick or on the slate—it is as simple as that. When I asked the shadow Secretary of State to respond to those teachers living under Labour’s PFI legacy, she said, “The Government should give them more money.” That is not a response. I hope that she will apologise to them for the legacy of PFI. It is a simple choice: Government Members, who are pushing ambition, pushing hope and pushing optimism; or low-ambition Labour.
I am obviously pleased that two schools in my area are to receive funding, announced yesterday, for urgent safeguarding interventions, fire safety compliance and urgent drainage interventions, but I raise to speak not about those schools that received funding but an incident earlier this year where my constituent Carla suffered a serious head injury while dropping off her children at school. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will share Carla’s message to the House. She said:
“I have two boys, aged 9 and 10, at primary school in Sheffield. On the 12th of January a large strip of board around 15 ft long fell off the school and hit me in the face. I had a significant black eye and needed 3 weeks off work as I had no ability to concentrate. I have been left with headaches, minor scarring around my eye and I am still waiting for an ENT referral for intrusive tinnitus.
I know this accident could have been prevented and it was pure luck that no one died: 10 minutes after the accident, a classroom of children were filing out from where I had just been injured. We can’t wait until the inevitable happens before meaningful action is taken. Steps need to be taken now to ensure the safety of all children, teachers and staff.”
Clearly my constituent has had to go through a lot, and it should shame us all. It is horrifying that we have got to this point. Our children’s school buildings are literally falling apart and, as Carla said, it is surely only a matter of time before something even worse happens.
Carla is also right that this could have been prevented. Thirteen years of reckless Conservative cuts have left us with capital spending on schools cut by 50% in real terms between 2010 and 2022. Despite promises to end austerity in our schools, new capital spending pledges are a drop in the ocean. In my city, 153 of 163 schools face cuts in 2023-24 and are set collectively to lose about £7.7 million. What is worse is that Ministers are keeping parents in the dark about how bad the situation is.
This is not about sowing fear; it is about sowing facts and informing people about what is happening in our education system. For more than a year, Ministers have known that school buildings have posed a risk to life, yet still the Government refuse to tell parents or the public where these dangerous school buildings are. How can Members hold the Government to account on the money they are giving to schools, where that is being directed, and whether those are the correct places? How can we have confidence in the surveys that we have?
Parents have a right to know whether the school they send their children to is safe, and teachers have a right to know whether their workplace is at serious risk of collapse. I hope that the Minister will outline what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that the whole school estate is safe, commit to publishing that condition survey of schools and pledge finally to end austerity in our schools so that students in all our constituencies can receive the good-quality education they deserve in—importantly—a safe and supportive environment. Anything less is a complete dereliction of duty. What happened to Carla is yet another warning sign. I really hope that that warning and her message are not ignored.
I must say how interesting it has been to listen to Opposition Members in the debate. As an MP who proudly represents my home area, I always find it fascinating to visit my old schools, which under the last Labour Government were in special measures or saw students being taught in old huts and portacabins—or they still have legacy PFI financing structures that cause headaches for school governors and headteachers alike. So forgive me for not taking lessons from Labour, especially when many of Bexley’s brilliant schools now have modern facilities that my generation could only have dreamed of.
I want to place on record my thanks to the Department for Education, which this week granted funding for four bids from schools in Old Bexley and Sidcup. That will help to improve learning facilities at Hurst Primary School, Sherwood Park Primary School, Holy Trinity Lamorbey Primary School and Blackfen School for Girls. That funding follows seven successful bids from Bexley schools in previous funding rounds, which I was happy to support. I would be delighted to welcome the Minister to visit one of those projects, perhaps the brilliant new sixth form block at Christ the King, Sidcup or perhaps the new sixth form block that will be built shortly at Beths Grammar School. Once it is completed, he will be most welcome to join me in Old Bexley and Sidcup.
The Government have also supported the vital expansion of special educational needs and disabilities provision in Bexley, which includes millions for new school places and £30 million to help Bexley expand its support for local children with SEND. That money is extremely vital and will go a long way to help local parents. Bexley’s share of the £2 billion additional funding for schools will also see £2.5 million of extra investment in local school budgets to help teachers to continue to deliver the education outcomes in Bexley that our borough is rightly proud of.
Bexley’s schools are one of the main reasons why my parents left a Labour-run area many years ago to move to Conservative-run Bexley. Many parents continue to make the same journey today, because they want the excellent schools that Bexley offers but neighbouring Labour boroughs sadly do not. That is why we often see champagne socialist parents sending their children across into Bexley and taking up vital school places—even in some grammar schools and, dare I say, some of the private schools, which are not the Etons described by those on the Labour Benches. Children are sent to them by champagne socialist parents and Labour would put them at risk. It will be interesting to see how they vote if that is in Labour’s manifesto next year.
In summing up, we have a world-leading education system. We need world-class facilities to match, so that pupils can study effectively in the best environment possible to help them succeed. Every school should have access to high-quality facilities. Investment by our Government will deliver that, so pupils can gain the skills they need for their careers and our economy. And like our schools this week, our economy is on the upgrade.
For over a year now, Ministers have known that school buildings posed “a risk to life”, and it has been more than a year since the Department for Education escalated the risk of building collapse to “very likely”, yet the Government will still not tell parents, teachers or pupils where those dangerous school buildings are. That is why this motion, which I support today, seeks to answer this question: where are our school buildings that are in dangerous condition and how severe is the disrepair of those buildings? Ministers know that buildings are at risk of collapse, yet they are still hiding the reality of this Conservative-made crisis from the public they supposedly serve.
After the upheaval of the pandemic, crumbling school buildings neglected by the Conservatives could see even more disruption to our children’s learning and education. Education is one of the most precious gifts we give our children. At the very least, parents expect it to be delivered in a safe school building, and I think most would expect to see it delivered in buildings fit for the 21st century. How can we tell our children and young people that we value their education, when we offer them education in substandard buildings? I heard from one Lancaster primary school headteacher this week who told me:
“We have, and continue to, really struggle to access any funding to refurbish our toilets, which are in a very poor state. It is really frustrating as we are not asking for luxury items—access to toilets which are fit for purpose is a basic need!”
It is not just the roofs at risk of collapse, buckets in corridors and peeling paint that are the outward display of the lack of value the Government place on our children’s education. It is, frankly, even the state of the toilets, with all the health implications of that. The Secretary of State must publish detailed school-level data from the latest condition of school buildings survey.
The challenge faced by small rural schools is exacerbated. A rural primary school headteacher from a school in Wyre told me today:
“We can’t afford to employ a site supervisor for our federation of two small village schools. This means that we pay massively over the odds when we need repairs doing. Recently, we have appealed to parents who are plumbers/electricians/carpenters to make repairs for us to save money.”
That is certainly a big step up from most parent teacher associations.
Many schools are not fit for the future. Teachers cannot focus on education if they are having to manage inadequate facilities. Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which ramped up capital funding in the late 2000s, was scrapped by this Government in 2010. Thirteen years later, we now have an entire generation of children who have seen nothing but decline in our school buildings. Does the Minister agree that it is impossible to give children a first-class education in second-class school buildings? Does he agree with the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), that parents worried about the state of their children’s school buildings have a right to know the scale of the problem?
If Conservative MPs vote today to keep parents in the dark about the condition of school buildings, that means that in Lancashire, despite 236 buildings being categorised as bad and in urgent need of repair, those parents are being let down. Their children’s future is being let down. One of the greatest privileges of being a Member of Parliament is the opportunity to visit schools and see the amazing work that our teachers do. Often, it is also an opportunity to see the state of the buildings that teachers are working in, children are learning in and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) pointed out, parents are accessing—putting their health at risk, too.
Every child deserves to be able to learn in a safe, secure environment that is conducive to learning. Not every child has the luxury of an expensive private education with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, but every child has the right to receive a first-rate education delivered by the state. Sadly, that is not always the case. Crumbling school buildings neglected by the Conservatives cause disruption to children’s learning, yet the Government will still not tell parents or the public where dangerous school buildings are. That is despite the Department for Education having escalated the risk of building collapse to “very likely”. The Government’s own officials stated that it may even pose a “risk to life”, according to a leaked document from a year ago.
The record is shameful. Capital spending by the Department for Education was around £4.9 billion in the last financial year—the lowest amount recorded since 2009-10 in real-terms prices. Overall, between 2009-10 and 2021-22, the Department’s capital spending declined by 50% in real terms. The Government announced a new 10-year school rebuilding programme in 2020, with a focus on replacing poor condition and ageing school buildings with modern, energy-efficient designs. But by December last year, a total of 400 schools had been identified for rebuilding work under the programme, out of a total of 500 due to receive funding. To put that in context, there are over 24,000 schools in England. We are seeing more sticking-plaster politics from this Government.
In Luton, 68 schools have been identified as having at least one instance of a grade C—or poor—construction condition issue. Some 28 schools have one instance of a grade D—bad—construction condition issue. It is shocking that this has been allowed to carry on. Parents and guardians deserve action. The Government need to recognise that many schools are not fit for the future, and teachers cannot focus on education if they are having to manage inadequate facilities. Let me take this opportunity to thank heads, school teachers and support staff in Luton South and others up and down the country who go above and beyond, overcoming the barriers and difficulties created by this Conservative Government to ensure that students receive the best possible education.
I support Labour’s motion today. The Secretary of State must publish detailed school-level data from the latest condition of school buildings survey, which must include conditions of individual building elements for all schools, and must ensure that they are urgently being made safe. The public has a right to know the scale of the problem, and our children deserve better.
I thank all the hard-working teaching and support staff in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. I welcome the fact that St Silas, The Belvedere Academy, St Margaret’s, Liverpool College and Bellerive have been allocated condition improvement funding, yet the stark reality is that we are facing the very real prospect of school buildings collapsing in this country. The consequences of such a disaster are almost unthinkable.
Crumbling schools have now become commonplace. Hundreds of schools across the country are now unsafe, let alone fit for purpose. In February this year, the Government admitted that at least 39 state schools in England have been forced to close, either partially or entirely, in the past three years, because one or more buildings have been deemed to be unsafe.
Between 2009-10 and 2021-22, overall capital spending on school buildings declined by almost 37% in cash terms, and by half in real terms. Given the crisis of inflation over which this Government are now presiding, the current funding commitments will barely scratch the surface and only paper over the cracks. At this rate, it will take over 400 years to fully remove dangerous asbestos from the school estate.
As a result, seven major trade unions organising in schools across the country are calling for urgent action to be taken now. They point to the two minor school collapses in England that have already happened—thankfully, no one was hurt. My good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), pointed out the serious accident that took place in her constituency. Just imagine if that had hurt a child.
The school rebuilding programme has identified 400 schools to be rebuilt. Some 13 years of Conservative cuts to school budgets have left us with a crumbling and dangerous estate. On top of that, a lack of investment in new schools is impacting our children’s education and safety, but today I discovered from the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), that the Government plan to build 98 new special schools, with a further 39 in the pipeline. Can the Minister clarify if those will be free schools or operated by the private sector?
Nelson Mandela said:
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
Teachers cannot focus on education if they have to manage in inadequate facilities. Does the Minister honestly believe, hand on heart, that it is safe to send children and staff into school buildings in England? If not, why will the Government not publish the data to show children, parents and staff where they are at risk?
I place on record my sincere thanks to every school governor, headteacher, teacher, member of the support staff and teaching assistant, as well as everyone who works on the school estate in my constituency. They do a fantastic job under very trying circumstances.
Those who have preceded me have eloquently explained the perilous state of the school estate across our country. In my constituency of Wansbeck, it is no different. While a few schools have been replaced or renovated, many children are taught in classrooms not in keeping with the modern age. My own high school has a new facade, but behind that there are the same classrooms that I was taught in 40 years ago—they were not new at that time either. I ask the Minister, what is there to hide? What is he afraid might come forward with the data for each and every school in this country?
The idea that schools could collapse is terrifying; that they could collapse releasing clouds of asbestos is shudderingly worrying. I want to focus on asbestos for a moment, and the fact that asbestos in schools is still killing teachers. Mesothelioma is the dreaded disease caused by asbestos. The Government are fully aware of the situation with mesothelioma and what is happening in our schools. I could focus on a range of health and safety issues regarding schools, but let us just focus on asbestos.
A staggering 87% of schools are reported to have asbestos in at least one of their buildings. The idea that that stuff is safe in situ, and that it is fine if it is not moved, is a convenient and dangerous lie from a Government that want to wish yet another major issue away.
The Government might be disturbingly surprised to hear that many school teaching professionals are now dying of mesothelioma, at an average of 21 per year—up three per year since 1980—yet they persist in burying their head in the sand. I invite the Minister to come to the schools in my constituency that have been in desperate need of repair or, in many cases, complete replacement for years. I invite him to join me, because I am not sure how some of those buildings are still standing—mebbes he could come and have a look for himself.
Getting back to the innocent people working in the schools, getting back to the kids and getting back to the teachers, I have to tell the Minister that people are dying because of asbestos in schools. Mesothelioma is a disease with a latency period of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, and there are still people dying as a result of asbestos in schools. He must do something about it. It is not good enough to continue to say that as long as we do not touch it, it will be fine, because people—teachers and kids—are dying as a result of mesothelioma. We need the data; we need the information. Parents have a right to know if our schools are safe and if their kids are safe when they leave their door in the morning and go into the educational environment.
So far, we have heard a lot about what we do not know, but I want to remind the House about what we do know about the results of the last condition data collection survey, completed in 2019. Over 7,000 schools contained a building component deemed to be life-expired or at serious risk of imminent failure. Almost nine in 10 schools in England had at least one component with “major defects” or “not operating as intended”. Overall, more than 240,000 items across the school estate—from doors to electrics to light fittings—were defective.
We know this not because the Department published the information itself but because of a series of written questions that I tabled last year. I am grateful to those on the Labour Front Bench for drawing attention to them. However, one fact that the Government did publish is that under the Conservatives the overall condition of the school estate has tanked. In 2014, the cost of the total maintenance backlog stood at £6.7 billion. It now stands at a whopping £11.4 billion. I have heard of “a stitch in time saves nine”, but the Conservatives have lost the repair kit and cost the taxpayer billions of pounds.
There is still much about the survey that we do not know. We do not know which schools received what grading for each of their components, and we do not know how much the total repair bill is in each council area or constituency. We have been told by the Minister that the data is forthcoming and that he needs more time to process it, but this survey is now four years old. How much longer must parents wait to see if their child’s school is safe and fit for purpose?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. A headteacher I spoke to this week said that he spends his whole time just keeping his students safe, warm and dry, when what he wants to do is create an inspirational space in which they can learn. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government seem to want us to be grateful for the very lowest levels, when instead we should be focused on having a great school for every child in this country?
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. I regularly hear from teachers that they are doing so much outside their core remit of teaching in order to support our students, and buildings are another example. A teacher from St Mary’s and St Peter’s School in Teddington came to visit me recently. She told me that she had had a bucket in her classroom for two years because the school could not afford the maintenance to fix it. Not repairing those sorts of things now will cost a hell of a lot more further down the line.
We know that some of the stats I have just quoted represent the tip of the iceberg, because the condition data collection survey is based purely on a visual inspection of school sites, meaning that latent problems in the school estate are going undetected. Thanks to an investigation by “ITV News”, we know that 68 schools contain reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, a building material likened to an Aero chocolate bar, which even the Office of Government Property has described as
“life-expired and liable to collapse”.
Yet thousands more schools do not know whether their site contains RAAC, because it cannot be identified on a visual inspection.
Every shut classroom, leaky roof and cold sports hall stands as a concrete sign of the Government’s neglect in investing in our schools and colleges. Parents, carers and communities are fed up of being let down and taken for granted, and there are few more concrete signs of a community being neglected than a crumbling school or hospital building. The Conservatives are learning the hard way, as the amazing by-election victory of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) shows. He ran a fantastic campaign on rebuilding Tiverton High School, and it took that by-election win and a question to the Prime Minister in the leadership hustings finally to get a promise of money for the school, yet we still have no start date for shovels in the ground.
Communities across this country are feeling let down. In my borough, two schools that applied to the school rebuilding programme last year had their application rejected. Twenty-three of 25 schools in Surrey met the same fate, as did six of seven schools in East Sussex. People are fed up and angry, and they want to make their voice heard. The Liberal Democrats believe that education is an investment in our children’s future. Spending on human capital generates returns for generations to come. It is absurd that the Treasury will predict that a new rail line will generate returns worth multiple times its initial cost while predicting that capital investment in schools returns just a fraction of the amount. How can that make sense?
The Government must invest to clear the backlog of repairs to school and college buildings. Parents deserve to know their children are being sent to schools that are safe and fit for purpose. They expect their Government to be transparent and they expect their community not to be taken for granted, yet the state of their local school often suggests otherwise. Neglecting school and college buildings endangers our children and may well contribute to this Government’s downfall.
Russell Scott Primary School in Denton, Tameside has around 460 students. It opened in 1882 and moved to its current building in 1981. For full transparency, I attended both buildings between 1978 and 1983. Sadly, the school has been described by the national media as:
“Britain’s worst built school where pupils paddle in sewage and get sick from toxic fumes”.
This follows a large-scale refurbishment by Carillion in 2015.
Following concerns about the quality of the building work, an independent defect report commissioned by Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council was completed in August 2017 and found the building to have severe structural issues. The remedial obligation fell to Carillion, which subsequently went bust.
If the Minister agrees, I would like to meet him to talk about the Tameside local education partnership. I have concerns about the LEP, not least its involvement in the Russell Scott issue with Carillion. Also, a £12 million special school is now being built, and it is £10 million over budget. And the governors of Aldwyn Primary School in my constituency have severe concerns about the work carried out by the LEP.
Russell Scott Primary School has significant structural damage: the roof is basically held up by thin air, the foundations are shot to pieces, the drainage is inadequate, sewage floods into classrooms and the fire doors and windows do not meet any modern safety standards. The defects are so structurally embedded that it would be cheaper to rebuild the school.
I have met Education Ministers on several occasions in recent years, most recently Baroness Barran in June, and they have all been very sympathetic and very helpful. When the Government published their 2022-23 school rebuilding programme, Russell Scott was not included. However, it was included in the 2023-24 school rebuilding programme, in a major victory for the staff who had been calling for action for nearly eight years. However, since that announcement there has been little movement on rebuilding the school. In a response to my written question in April, the Minister said that the school rebuilding programme
“will start delivery at a rate of approximately 50 per year, over a five-year period.”
That is fine, but it does not tell me when Russell Scott school will be rebuilt. The delays to the start of the building work are concerning, particularly given that the DFE’s own surveyors assigned the build to their urgent projects team as they have also seen that there are inherent faults at the school.
I understand that when I intervened the Minister did not have this background information to hand, and it was almost as though we should be grateful to be on the list. I am delighted that we are in the programme, do not get me wrong, but I want an actual school, not a piece of paper. For now, a start date will suffice.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. Many colleagues have made eloquent points advocating support for the motion, and I, too, support it. Education is undoubtedly the most vital public service and one of the most important investments our country makes. I tend to agree with one of the earlier contributors that we need to look at cost-benefit analysis. Investment in education extends life opportunities and enables young people to achieve their aspirations. Our schools should be considered educational beacons of opportunity. Our teachers should be valued and held in high esteem. However, the Government are falling short on ensuring adequate funding for our schools.
I want to commend the exceptional teaching staff in my constituency, but I also wish to highlight a problem at the Seaham Trinity Primary School in Princess Road in my constituency. The school is only 15 years old and it was funded by the council’s own capital resources, not through a private finance initiative scheme. I am concerned because this relatively new building shows significant problems: rising damp; black mould in the resource cupboards; dampness in the toilet cubicles, which makes them challenging to clean; lifting floors and carpet tiles; and deterioration in the roof to such an extent that it requires a complete replacement.
I have raised my concerns with Durham County Council, which is, sadly, now led by a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Its only response is to highlight the unfortunate reality that the contractors are often reluctant to address latent defects for which they are liable, an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). In the case of Trinity Primary, a company called Surgo Construction was involved, and I believe it should be held accountable.
It is in the public interest that crucial infrastructure, including school buildings, is constructed to high or even exceptional standards, not merely a standard deemed “acceptable”. I ask the Minister and the Department: what power and resources does he have to hold powerful interests to account for the public good? Does the DFE, led by the Schools Minister and the Secretary of State, have any powers in that regard? If it does not, should we not be introducing legislation that ensures that companies such as Surgo Construction cannot renege on their responsibilities to taxpayers, staff and students in schools such as Trinity Primary in Seaham?
I would not expect a building that is only 15 years old to be plagued with dampness, mould and a deteriorating roof, and I am sure nobody else would. If I were Surgo, I would be ashamed to have delivered a building that has fallen into such a state of disrepair within such a short period. I urge support for the motion, and I want to ensure that my constituents have the very best standards of school buildings in which to deliver an education.
It is natural for parents to worry about their children, but, over the past few years, they have had quite a lot to worry about: the pandemic causing disruption to education; the risks posed by online harms; and the challenges posed to families now by the cost of living crisis. Those are all issues that we hear about time and again from constituents who are doing their best to bring up their children in these difficult times.
One place where parents expect their children to be kept safe is at school, and they would surely expect that, if there were a risk to their children’s safety, they might be informed about it. As things stand, though, many parents are not even aware that their children are attending schools in which the buildings have reached such a state of disrepair that there is a significant risk of collapse. For more than a year, Conservative Ministers have known that some of these buildings have posed a risk to life, but the Government will still not be transparent about the condition of all of those schools and the danger that children may face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked earlier about the issue of asbestos in schools, and I can only reiterate the concerns that he raised. The condition of buildings continues to worsen. In 2017, the National Audit Office reported that it would cost £6.7 billion to return all school buildings to a satisfactory or a better condition. It also said that there was significant risk that further deterioration would increase these costs, with the DFE estimating that the cost of returning to schools to a satisfactory condition would double between the financial years of 2015-16 and 2020-21.
Indeed, by 2021 the DFE reported a repair bill of more than £11 billion. Its survey shone a light on crumbling buildings and leaking facilities, schools still using ancient “temporary” portacabins, and, in some cases, buildings riddled with asbestos. This picture suggests that the Government have failed to get to grips with the problem that they themselves had previously identified. It was also perhaps the inevitable outcome of a halving in real-terms capital spending on schools and other educational establishments between 2009-10 and 2020-21. The lack of public data on the condition of school buildings has meant that we are not even able to properly see what the impact of this decline looks like.
As of the end of last year, the Government’s school rebuilding programme has identified 400 schools for rebuilding work. I am happy, as I said earlier, that some schools in my constituency are on that list, but they cannot keep waiting. I want to see schools, not promises. The work is urgent. According to the DFE’s own data, my local authority of Gateshead has 43 schools that have received the worst rating for at least one aspect of their buildings.
The Prime Minister has said that he sees no reason why the UK cannot rival the best education systems in the world, and we all want that, but is he really content to let children sit between crumbling walls and under collapsing roofs, with parents and staff not alerted to the risks? In the schools that I visit every week, teachers, students and in some cases parents do a great job to make schools look cheerful, colourful and vibrant, whatever their condition, but surely they deserve to know the condition of their school, and we all need to know that information, so I hope the Minister will respond by agreeing to publish it.
Order. Just before I call the Front-Bench speakers, I place on record the fact that the Chair of the Education Committee has indicated to those on the Front Bench and to the Chair that he has had to absent himself for urgent personal reasons, which we understand.
It is a pleasure to conclude this important debate in support of the motion in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition.
Following a decade of neglect by the Conservatives of our country’s school estate, children across England face disruption to learning as well as direct threats to their safety. Yet today, parents are still in the dark about the scale of the problem. Two years ago, the condition of school buildings survey revealed alarming problems within the school estate. Since then, Labour has been calling on the Government to be transparent with parents and to tell them whether their child’s school poses a risk to life; but instead of being transparent, the Government have chosen to continue pulling the wool over parents’ eyes.
That is why Labour is giving Conservative MPs a choice tonight. They can show they are on the side of parents who want answers today, or they can show that they are on the side of the Government, who want to keep parents in the dark. My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) have all articulated the importance of this debate for parents in their areas with helpful speeches and interventions, and made a powerful case for schools in their constituencies.
My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State opened the debate by outlining how, in 13 years of Conservative government, not once has capital spending for the Department for Education matched in real terms the level it was at when this Government entered office. However, as she said, the test is not just the money the Government put in, but the state of the buildings in which our children learn, and that tells its own story. As she said:
“When people don’t mend things, they break; when buildings break, they cause damage.”
As I stated, it has been two years since the condition of school buildings survey revealed alarming problems within the school estate. It has been one year since a leaked Government report revealed that school buildings in England are now in such disrepair that they pose a risk to life. It has been six months since the Department for Education raised the risk of school buildings collapsing from “critical” to “critical—very likely” in its annual report.
Yet despite those repeated warnings, there is no urgency from Government to fix the problem or to address the concerns of parents—and not for want of trying by Labour. We have repeatedly asked the Government to identify which buildings are most affected. In December, the Schools Minister said he would publish the data on these dangerous buildings by the end of the year. In January he said the data would be “published shortly”. In February we heard nothing, in March we heard nothing and in April—you may have guessed it, Mr Deputy Speaker—we heard nothing. We are now in May, and parents, staff and pupils still do not know whether their school is “very likely” to collapse.
That begs the question why this Government are so determined to keep parents in the dark on this. The Opposition welcome the Minister’s latest promise to publish the data before the House rises this summer, but we have heard this all before. We heard it last year. We do not want any more broken promises. We will not believe the Government until they publish the data. One thing that is clear is that the Government are not going to disclose that information of their own volition, which is why we have tabled this motion.
Whether on lockdown parties, speeding tickets or school buildings, this is a Government incapable of transparency. That is why we must force them to be transparent and to come clean to parents regarding the condition and location of crumbling school buildings. It is parents, children and school staff whose lives will be at risk—not my words, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the words of senior officials in the Department for Education. Those officials are seriously worried at data showing that one third of school buildings pose a
“serious risk of imminent failure”.
That is more than 7,000 school buildings across England.
Conservative Members may wish to ignore the problem, but they really should not, because those schools include 23 in Chichester, seven in Bognor Regis, seven in Stoke-on-Trent North and 21 in Richmond, Yorkshire. All bar two councils in England have at least four schools requiring urgent work.
It is no wonder that our nation’s school buildings are in their current state. Between 2010 and 2022, overall capital spending on England’s state school estate fell by about 50% in real terms.
The Minister will point to the funding announcement in March, but after a decade of neglect, that will barely scratch the surface of what is needed. The DFE itself has admitted that the true cost of repair will be over 10 times what the Government announced, at £11.4 billion. The Minister will also point to the condition improvement funding announcement yesterday, but as sector experts pointed out, this money is the bare minimum and not close to the amount needed to repair or replace faulty elements in the school estate.
It is becoming clearer by the day that after 13 years of dysfunction, we are now approaching the end of the road for this Tory Government. For our school estate, this has been 13 years of cut-price, sticking plaster solutions and inefficient repairs, when green rebuilds and long-term plans were required. The result of that is evident, and from visiting schools up and down the country, I have seen it all at first hand—ageing buildings, many of which were built decades, if not a century ago, with unmet repairs, cracked walls, asbestos, buckets placed across classrooms catching leaks and crumbling roofs. The Government’s complacency on this is inexcusable, given the scale of the problem.
I have heard from teachers and school leaders of a number of near misses, and too often we have seen stories of injuries to adults caused by faulty school buildings that would have been much more tragic had a child been standing in the same place. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam told the House last month of a parent in her constituency who was injured after a piece of cladding fell on her, and I thank her for telling Carla’s story again today.
A recent freedom of information request from Schools Week found that a teacher was reportedly admitted to hospital after they were hit by a falling ceiling tile at a school in Bradford, forcing temporary closure and repairs. A school in Birmingham also temporarily closed after a concrete ceiling panel fell on a desk during the holidays. I cannot bear to think about what could have happened in those instances had they happened on a different day, week or hour. We must realise that these near misses will not continue forever, and that is why the Government cannot continue to bury their head in the sand.
The last Labour Government transformed our children’s schools and our school estate. Widespread modern rebuilds led to improvements in standards and behaviour and made school a place for children to learn. It only took the current Levelling Up Secretary six years to admit he regretted scrapping the Building Schools for the Future programme, which caused over 700 school building projects to be cancelled, including the secondary school I attended in Portsmouth, which was an old Victorian building then and is still an old Victorian building now. It seems that the lessons learned by the Levelling Up Secretary still have not been passed on to his colleagues.
It will therefore be up to the next Labour Government to make our school estate one to be proud of once again and to make sure that every child in every corner of our country can go to an excellent local school. Until that day, it is all MPs’ duty to ensure that all children go to a school that is safe, that all teachers and all school staff are not at risk when they go to work, and that all parents know the real state of children’s school buildings.
For over a decade, Conservatives neglected that duty, but fortunately today, all Members, including those on the Government Benches, have a choice. They can show that they are on the side of parents by publishing long-overdue data revealing the condition and location of the buildings that the Government have admitted are very likely to collapse. They can shed a light on an issue that the Government are determined to keep hidden in the dark. We can choose to tell parents the truth. Government Members can show that they are willing to put the wellbeing and safety of children above party loyalty. The other choice is to side with the Government, to keep parents in the dark, to keep hoping for near misses and to continue allowing the Government to bury their head in the sand.
I know which side Labour will be on: we will be on the side of teachers and school support staff, on the side of parents and on the side of children. I look forward to seeing which side Government Members choose.
I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. Of course, I start by thanking all the teachers and support staff in schools in my constituency of Harlow and across the country who do so much to look after our children and learners.
I want to thank the many hon. Members who have spoken today, and comment on some of the things that have been said. The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) talked about her school, Grange Park; I am sure that one of the schools Ministers will be pleased to meet her to discuss it, and I am sure she will be pleased that she is getting £1.5 million in capital for her schools in 2023-24. As always, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker)—who is no longer in his place—was very thoughtful. He acknowledged what the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) has said: that the publication of this data will come by the summer recess. He also mentioned the benefit of funding for schools that he has seen in his own constituency.
The hon. Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood) will be pleased to know that there is a capital allocation of £2.7 million to invest in his schools, hopefully including the schools that he mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) highlighted the significant amount invested in his constituency area, but also reminded us that it was the Labour party’s manifesto at the last election to abolish Ofsted and SATs. He rightly reminded us of the work we have done to improve reading, thanks to all the hard work of the Schools Minister. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) talked about capital funding in his area; he will be pleased to know that there is £1.8 million in 2023-24 to invest in maintained schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) highlighted the significant amount of capital funding in a number of schools in his constituency, and rightly talked about the problems of private finance initiatives under the last Government. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) talked about her constituent. I wish her constituent better, and I am sorry—
I do appreciate that—my intervention is a very quick one. We have been talking about transparency today. Would my right hon. Friend, in his good office, perhaps look at ways in which we could examine the impact that PFI has had on schools’ ability to keep up capital maintenance? That might be something that he and I could have a discussion about after the debate.
I am sure that that point has been heard by the Schools Minister and by the school system Minister, who is watching the debate. I thank my hon. Friend for his question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) talked about all the funding that has gone to four successful bids in his constituency and a previous seven bids, which shows that money is going to our schools. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) talked about what is happening in our schools; I gently remind her that whatever has gone on in terms of capital funding, 68% of schools were good or outstanding in 2010, and now 88% of schools are. The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) will be pleased to know that there is more capital funding—£3.6 million, I think—going to her schools. She talked about the money that went in previously; it is worth noting to Members who have talked about that issue that the previous Building Schools for the Future programme was seen by the James review as bureaucratic and not as effective as it could have been.
In answer to the question asked by my former colleague on the Education Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), those schools will be free schools. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) will be getting £3.9 million in capital funding in his area for 2023-24, and the issue of asbestos was dealt with very nobly by my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), the Lib Dem spokesman, talked about our capital spending programme. I think it is important to remind people that—as has been said—we have allocated over £15 billion for improving the condition of the school estate since 2015, including £1.8 billion this financial year. In addition, the school rebuilding programme will transform the condition of buildings at 500 schools; 400 schools are now in the programme, including 239 announced in December 2022. We have allocated a further £500 million in capital funding in 2022-23, so the funding is there, the survey and the data are there, and there is guidance, a toolkit and support for schools as well.
I just want to finish this point. I spoke to the Schools Minister as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) was speaking, and I am sure that he or the school system Minister will be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issues with his school that he raised.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) talked about problems with a fairly new school. Again, the Schools Minister will have heard him, and I am sure there can be a meeting or some correspondence to discuss that important issue.
I can also confirm that the constituency of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) will be getting £1.8 million. Turning to—[Interruption.] Do not worry; I have not forgotten the hon. Member for Twickenham. The hon. Member for Blaydon also asked about the CDC condition grades, and the number of D grades quoted is correct, but they make up less than 1% of all condition grades, with the vast majority being As and Bs.[Official Report, 7 June 2023, Vol. 733, c. 10MC.]
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. During the Schools Minister’s opening speech, I asked whether he would commit to publishing the details of the 39 schools that have partially or fully closed since 2019 because they were deemed unsafe. He suggested that I was interfering with the build-up of anticipation in his speech, but he reached the crescendo without giving us an answer. I therefore ask the Skills Minister to commit to publishing the details of those 39 schools that have shut.
My right hon. Friend the Schools Minister has already made it clear that that information will be published by the summer.
I have tried to answer as many points as possible, and I want to re-emphasise that there are no open areas within school or college buildings where we know of an imminent risk to the safety of pupils and staff. If the Department is made aware of buildings that pose such a risk, immediate action is taken.
Since 2015, as I mentioned a moment ago, over £15 billion—no mean sum—has been spent to improve the condition of school buildings, including the £1.8 billion committed this year, and that spending is informed by consistent data on the condition of schools. As part of that, only yesterday we announced over £450 million in capital funding through the condition improvement fund. This will support over 1,000 projects to improve buildings at academies and other schools, including 23 projects at 16-to-19 academies and sixth-form colleges. That comes on top of the school rebuilding programme, which is meeting our commitment to transform buildings in poor condition at 500 schools and sixth-form colleges, and its predecessor, the priority school building programme.
In my area of skills, we are also investing over £2.8 billion of capital in skills to improve the FE estate, to develop new places in post-16 education, to provide specialist equipment and facilities for T-levels, and to deliver 20 institutes of technology across England. We are meeting our manifesto commitment by investing over £1.5 billion in upgrading and transforming the FE college estate through the FE capital transformation programme. All colleges have had funding through the programme, but we have directed funding towards addressing the worst conditions in the estate.
The Department is working with 16 colleges with some of the worst condition sites in the country to design and deliver their capital projects, and some 77 further projects are being pursued by colleges themselves with grant funding from the programme. I was pleased to announce at the end of March that a further £286 million would be allocated to 181 colleges with remaining poor conditions. Colleges are currently developing their plans for how to most effectively use this funding over the next two years to address condition improvement of their estate. Of course, that comes on top of additional allocations of capital funding provided to colleges in December—£53 million to support capital projects, particularly energy support measures—and £150 million provided in April to support funding gaps resulting from reclassification of the sector.
As mentioned earlier, we take RAAC particularly seriously and are committed to working with the sector to address any safety risk it poses. We are working proactively with responsible bodies to help with identification and management of RAAC across the school estate and have asked them to inform us of any schools and colleges that may have it. We individually follow up every report of a school that has RAAC, sending a technical adviser to verify its presence and assess its condition. If RAAC is confirmed, we then ensure appropriate and rapid action is taken to address any immediate risk, based on professional advice. More broadly, any academy trust or local authority with a serious issue with its buildings that it cannot address from its existing resources can come to the Department. We will work with those schools to find a solution and provide additional support as needed.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools outlined earlier, we commissioned the condition data collection to provide us with robust evidence for distributing capital funding fairly to where it is most needed. We have shared a report with detailed data on each school with every single school during the programme, as well as with the academy trusts, dioceses and local authorities responsible for those schools. We published the overall findings of the condition data collection two years ago, and we plan to publish more detailed data at school level as soon as possible. Its successor programme, CDC2, is now under way and will complete by 2026. Where our surveyors see issues that cause them concern, they inform the school and the Department. My right hon. Friend and I take these issues extremely seriously. We are monitoring developments and progress constantly.
As I was saying, the Minister for Schools and I are monitoring developments and progress constantly. Schools and colleges are critical to the country’s economy. We continue to invest in their estates, prioritising safety. That is vital to supporting pupils and students to gain the knowledge and skills they need to provide them with the ladder of opportunity to fulfil their potential, whether through good jobs or additional education.