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School Building Closures

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement on the number of schools affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete and the impact of building closures on children’s learning.

As I said in my statement to the House on 4 September, this Government are supporting affected schools and colleges to minimise disruption to education. I thank headteachers, staff, local authorities and trusts who continue to provide face-to-face education to their pupils.

Two weeks ago, we published a list of education settings with buildings affected by RAAC. Before I provide an update, I want to reiterate that our view is that parents and children should find out from their school, not from a list on a Government website or from the media. Our approach has always prioritised that, giving schools and colleges the space to focus on what is important: minimising disruption to education.

None the less, we recognise the public interest. On 6 September we published a list of 147 education settings known to be affected by RAAC. Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders, all of those settings are now offering face-to-face education, with 126 settings offering full-time face-to-face education to all pupils. We have today published an updated list including a further 27 settings with confirmed RAAC. Of the 174 confirmed cases, 148 settings are providing full-time face-to-face education to all pupils.

As I have said before, we will do everything in our power to support schools and colleges in responding to RAAC in their buildings. Every school or college with confirmed RAAC is assigned a dedicated support from our team of 80 caseworkers. A bespoke plan is put in place to ensure they receive the support that suits their circumstances. Project delivery teams are on site to provide support, whether that is ordering or finding alternative accommodation options or putting in place structural solutions.

We will fund these mitigations, including installing alternative classroom space. Where schools and colleges make reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to locations, those will be approved. We will also fund longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to permanently remove RAAC, through capital grants or rebuilding projects through the school rebuilding programme.

I want to reassure pupils, parents and staff that this Government will do whatever it takes to support our schools and colleges, to keep everybody safe, to respond to RAAC and to minimise disruption to education.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Before I go any further, let me emphasise that the safety of children should rightly be the priority of every Member of this House. However, the question today is not simply about whether that should be our priority, but about the colossal shambles of a Secretary of State who, as we learned from the Education Committee this morning, did not merely sit on new advice about the safety of school buildings, which she received on 21 August, but did nothing for four days. And then she acted decisively—she went on holiday for the best part of a week. Some 10 days passed from the day she received the crucial advice to the day the headteachers were told to close their schools, causing chaos for parents.

Just a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State’s response to questions about the management of the Department’s own building was simple and proud, the motto she has made her own:

“nothing to do with me”.

She had done a “good job”, while others had been sat on their backsides. Does the Secretary of State still think that is good enough? More simply, even under this Prime Minister, weak as he is, and this Government, how on earth did she think she could get away with going on holiday rather than taking any form of action at all? Will she at last take responsibility for 13 years of failure, three weeks of chaos and the years stretching ahead of the children who are sitting under steel girders? When will all our children be back in their own schools and classrooms? Parents, families, staff and, above all, our children deserve answers, and they deserve better from this Government and better than this Secretary of State.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. As soon as we had information, we took a decision in every case. When we first saw the incident in 2018, we took a decision and we put out new guidance and warnings. We put out new guidance in 2021-22. We started surveys directly in 2022, when the previous Secretary of State started to get more concerned about RAAC in our school estate. We then sent in surveyors directly, because the responsible bodies were not moving quickly enough.

Let me turn now to the initial advice. Three new cases emerged over the summer, and some were subject to advice, as the hon. Lady says, which came on 21 August. I instructed those involved to get more technical information. The last case is really what tipped us into making a decision. It was a very difficult decision—I am not sure the hon. Lady would have made it because Labour do not tend to make these difficult decisions, and the Labour Government in Wales have still not done so—because of the impact on children and because of the impact on our school leaders and teachers. The last case, which was in another school setting in England, took place on 24 August. We went to investigate that to see what had happened.

On my own decision, I went abroad because that was the first time that I could go abroad. I went abroad for my father’s birthday, knowing that I would still be chairing the meetings, which I did on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and then I made the decision—as we had now made a decision— to come back from holiday immediately. My return was delayed by one day because of the air traffic control incident, so I got back to announce the decision on Thursday.

When I looked at the new case, I said that we needed to get technical evidence. The second thing I said was that we needed to operationalise this. I knew that this would be difficult. I did not want to put schools in a position where, if I put out a notice via the media or directly, they would be left with the problem. I wanted to stand up caseworkers. I wanted to stand up portacabins. I wanted to speak to utility companies to make sure that everything would be in place so that we could minimise the length of time that it took to put up those portacabins. I wanted to put more structural engineering companies in place, because I knew that we would do more surveys. I also wanted to make sure that we had a nationwide propping company, so that we could put the largely horizontal structural solutions in place to fix everything.

When we have to make a major decision, there is no point creating more issues than we need to. We need to operationalise that decision, which is what I decided to do. The time from the last case to the announcement was one week. That is probably one of the quickest decisions that most people have made in this House and we operationalised it, all while I was still working, as I always do.

I am grateful to the Minister with responsibility for the schools system and the permanent secretary for spending two hours this morning with the Education Committee on this issue. They were able to provide a number of useful answers, including on the provision of temporary classrooms.

I have to say that I was very disappointed last night to receive what was a non-answer on that question about temporary classrooms, which had already been asked at the Public Accounts Committee. I am glad that Baroness Barran was able to go further with the Select Committee today. The information that she provided us with was that there were seven cases from before the summer requiring temporary buildings. The Department is now aware of 29 schools that will require some form of temporary accommodation. Eleven have that temporary accommodation in place. As of Friday, there is the potential for as many as 180 single classrooms and 68 double classrooms to be needed as temporary accommodation.

I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that those are provided as swiftly as possible and that schools and responsible bodies have certainty about when those will be in place, so that we absolutely do what she said—to minimise disruption of children’s education. A key concern of the Select Committee is children not in school, and anything that can be done to minimise that disruption, to create greater certainty for the teachers and the leaders who have done such an amazing job of responding to this, will certainly be welcome.

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee. I apologise about the written answer the previous night; we had more recent information at the Education Committee. The cases are always being assessed and the numbers are always being updated, which is why we choose a date to publish the latest information. The numbers are moving very quickly. He is absolutely right: 11 RAAC schools already have temporary buildings that are installed or in use. There is a further 28 sites, I think, that have made inquiries and requested potential orders. As he rightly said, there are 180 single classrooms, 68 double classrooms, plus a mixture of toilet provision.

On the portacabins, I would just like to say that I have been to a number of these schools and met the children. At the first school I visited, the children were all petitioning me to stay in the portacabins, because they actually preferred them to the classroom. The portacabins are very high quality—[Interruption.] That is true. I advise the shadow Secretary of State to visit some of them herself.

Perhaps the Secretary of State could clarify whether it is 18 or 28 schools that still need temporary classrooms, because we have heard different figures from her and from her ministerial colleague at the Education Committee earlier. Something headteachers have said to me is that they do not just need the temporary classrooms, but they need some of them kitted out as science labs or design and technology classrooms, for example. There is a cost to doing that. It is not just a question of chairs and tables; it is much more. What is her Department doing to make sure that children have the right classrooms so they can do their assessments, which are already ticking along towards next year’s exams?

I confirm that the project directors and caseworkers have made inquiries requesting potential orders for a further 28 sites. There are some specialist requirements for science labs or other specialist equipment, and there are a number of things taking place on that. Schools are sharing science lab equipment in the short term, either with another school or with another part of the school. We are also looking at mitigations. In the school I went to see where the children were very happy in their portacabin, they had horizontally propped and mitigated the science labs first, so they were able to use the science labs in combination with the portacabins. There are also specialist portacabins available, which are being looked at in specific circumstances.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools for all their hard work, but I ask the Secretary of State to do something from the Dispatch Box. Haygrove School in my constituency is a disaster of construction. It is a Caledonian Modular construction and it has gone badly wrong. Will she please reiterate from that Dispatch Box that this is nothing to do with concrete, but is rather about bad construction? Children and parents are still worried that there is concrete in the school, and there is not. Could she please reconfirm that?

I confirm that Haygrove School is not subject to RAAC. It is a Caledonian Modular build, and we are looking at the quality of a small number of those schools. We are working right now on what solutions we can put in place. There is another such school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, and we are putting temporary school structures in place for those schools.

The crumbling concrete crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated by the catastrophic failure of the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, to sign off on the school rebuilding programme that Department for Education officials requested. Yet the current Chancellor, as we have heard today, will not give the Department any new money to fix the roofs. So what does the Secretary of State say to the hundreds of schools currently managing asbestos, leaky roofs and cold classrooms, which will be put to the back of the queue for a rebuild yet again because the Treasury still does not understand the importance of investing in our children and education?

As someone who has been the Secretary of State since October and has secured record funding for our schools—going up to £60 billion a year next year, which is higher than it has ever been by any measure hon. Members wish to use—I feel that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister very much invest in our schools.

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about Building Schools for the Future. Opposition Members consistently claim that that would have fixed the issue. I know they are not normally across the details, so I thought they might be interested in a few facts. Park View School in Tottenham, which was recently visited by the Leader of the Opposition, Hornsey School for Girls in Hornsey and Stepney All Saints School in Stepney Green were all refurbished or rebuilt under BSF, but all three are still suffering from RAAC. The Opposition do not even know how to solve the problem when it is right in front of their nose.

My right hon. Friend has been absolutely right to act decisively to put the safety of children first. As the list of affected schools has grown today, what reassurances can she give us on the number of schools still awaiting expedited surveys and the absolute cut-off point by which those surveys will be completed?

Last time I was at this Dispatch Box, 95% of all questionnaires had been responded to. Now it is 98.6%, so the publicity has really helped to drive people who had not already responded, and we are grateful to them. I also committed that all the schools that were waiting to be surveyed would be surveyed by the end of this week, and I can confirm that that will absolutely be done. We have a good rate of surveys; we have eight companies doing them and we now have a process that means that as soon schools come in, we will get to them very quickly to survey.

I have a straightforward question for the Secretary of State that I hope she will answer clearly. Will she guarantee that the cost of all the repairs will be funded by new money from the Government, not the current education budget, which is not enough anyway?

As I think I have explained before, there are different parts to the funding. Initially, the surveying work, the mitigations work and the temporary accommodation will all be funded by the DFE’s capital budget—we have a budget for that work. There is also revenue budget for additional things such as transport, hiring a village hall and so on—that will also come from a building fund within the DFE. We have already announced some of the school rebuilding projects, but we have spaces left and some are still to be announced, so some of that will be utilised. Beyond that, as the Chancellor says, we will do everything needed to keep children safe in our schools.

I put on record my admiration for Mrs Sudworth, Tania Lewyckyj and Canon Slade School for their monumental effort to ensure the smooth running of the school since the RAAC announcement. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Department can encourage surveyors who have concerns about buildings containing asbestos to help avoid delays in the installation of temporary classrooms?

I join my hon. Friend in praising the team at Canon Slade School, who have all pupils in face-to-face education. The vast majority of schools identified as having RAAC have all pupils in face-to-face learning, and that is down to the dedication of our school leaders. All schools have an asbestos plan, but if there is asbestos that needs to be moved as part of the mitigation works, it will be safely removed.

How many publicity videos for party political purposes did the Secretary of State make for Conservative MPs on the day that she found out about the RAAC issue?

I do not recall making any particularly party political broadcasts. On the day when we made the announcements, I did the evening round and the pooled clip and recording, and the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), then did the morning round. That was the focus of our attention in terms of publicity.

The National Audit Office report of 28 June was, of course, agreed with the Department, as all NAO reports are. Given that that report identified that up to 700,000 children were in schools where there were critical safety issues, what was the technical evidence that the Secretary of State said she required some two months later, when that final school collapsed in the way it did?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very good question. The NAO report addressed bids to, and demand for, the school rebuilding programme. On the technical information, what we have done during the surveys—[Interruption.] If he cares to listen, there is an important distinction. The surveys that we started conducting from September 2022, when we sent our own surveyors into schools, looked at RAAC and whether it was critical or non-critical. That is why 52 schools had already been closed immediately: they were seen as critical. What changed was that there were three instances where the ceilings had been assessed as non-critical but had failed. I wanted structural engineers—I am not a structural engineer—to go in and tell me whether something assessed as non-critical had failed for another reason. Could they say why it had failed, or did I need to look at every non-critical roof and change my understanding of how we wanted to treat them? I wanted to be cautious. That was what we did, and as a result, we decided to act on all the non-critical ceilings straight away to keep people safe.

Half an hour ago, I came from a meeting with London fire chiefs, who were calling for a national register of buildings containing RAAC. That is a practical ask—will the Secretary of State work with other Departments to ensure that it becomes a reality?

I think the fire chiefs usually work with local responsible bodies to find out how they can minimise fire risks within a local area.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I will put four questions to the Secretary of State, because the pupils, parents and staff of St Leonard’s Catholic School deserve answers. First, can we confirm that the planned rebuild of St Leonard’s will now be accelerated? Secondly, when will the venues for rehoming St Leonard’s be confirmed and the finances approved? Thirdly, what additional financial and practical provisions will be in place for the most vulnerable pupils, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities and those receiving free school meals? Fourthly, what options for special consideration will exam boards apply to year 11 and year 13 students this year?

I am delighted that St Leonard’s now has a mix of face-to-face and remote learning—it has done a fantastic job to enable that, working with local partners. On school rebuilding, we are making those decisions with the project directors we have on site at St Leonard’s. We will consider first the short-term and medium-term mitigations, and then when we should do the rebuilding. We have an MPs surgery later for anybody in the House to raise specific cases that they are interested in; I shall be there with my Ministers and officials, and we are happy to go into detail on any case and give Members the latest. It is still an evolving situation, but we will be there and will support St Leonard’s as much as possible to ensure that children are safely educated there.

I am sure that all the people the Secretary of State told to get off their backsides will be very sympathetic to the fact that she needed to go on holiday while this crisis was in progress.

On revenue and costs, the Secretary of State has itemised a number of things that the Government will cover, but schools face a vast range of potential revenue costs, including surveyors and other costs. Is she saying that all costs relating to RAAC will be covered?

Yes, all the costs that the hon. Gentleman mentions are reasonable costs. Also, I am sure that he is delighted that all the pupils at St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive School are in face-to-face education.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about my working, I am always happy to work, no matter where I am, and I always have been throughout my very long career.

Ellesmere Port Catholic High School has huge challenges: five classrooms, the chapel, two corridors, changing facilities, kitchens and canteens have been closed, meaning that a number of technical lessons cannot be taught and no hot food can be served. I have a direct plea from the headteacher, who says:

“I cannot understate the urgency of this situation, particularly with the temporary accommodation. We are having real issues getting the Department to approve mitigations so that we can operate for all our students in the short term.”

After this statement, will the Secretary of State have a look at this case and talk to officials about getting the approvals that that headteacher needs?

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case; I will take a note of Ellesmere Port Catholic High School. If he would like to join the MPs surgery later, we can go through that matter in greater detail, or I can write to him about it if his diary does not allow that.

May I press the Secretary of State on the source of the funds needed to rebuild the RAAC schools? I ask because repairs to RAAC hospitals are coming from delaying indefinitely other hospital rebuilding schemes, including two in my constituency. Will any future schools capital projects be similarly rescheduled?

Colyton Grammar School in my corner of Devon is one of the 27 schools added today to the list of 147 schools already known to have RAAC on site. The National Association of Head Teachers has pointed out that propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option. I want Colyton Grammar School to be able to open up the small part of its estate that has had to close, but if there is new money, and works will not impact on the existing school rebuilding programme, what impact can we expect them to have on funding pledged last year to schools such as Tipton St John Primary School and Tiverton High School?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing a very professional job. There is no intention of propping schools up with metal poles; they will largely be horizontal props involving tempered beams, which is how buildings are built in the first place—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) shows her absolute ignorance of this. They will be either steel structures or wooden structures that will then have another roof underneath. I urge everybody to go and look at these classrooms, because they will see that there is no vertical propping—not in any of the schools that I have seen so far—and that is certainly not a long-term solution. The hon. Gentleman will be satisfied that these are very high-quality solutions for our children.

While the dust has settled on media coverage at this time, I thank the Secretary of State for her clear commitment and positivity today in finding a way forward. We understand that there might be some online learning, as experienced during covid, but that can lead to detrimental effects on learning given the importance of face-to-face engagement. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department in Northern Ireland to gauge the depth of the concrete problems? There is a school in my constituency, but I understand that it has been able to sort out the problems and teaching in school has continued. It is important to know whether any extra funding is available, however, and if so, would that be subject to the Barnett consequentials so we can also get some benefit?

Immediately when we had more information we shared it with the devolved nations. We had been conducting surveys for over a year at that point but it was clear that that was not happening in the devolved nations so they are still not able to identify where the RAAC is and go on to take the action that we took very decisively at the end of last month. We will continue to work with them and support them, and to share evidence, including on how to mitigate in a way that makes good solutions for our children.