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RAAC: St Leonard’s, Durham

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete at St Leonard’s Catholic School, City of Durham.

I welcome the Minister to his place; I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience at the Department for Education and I look forward to working with him to resolve the situation at St Leonard’s. I note that only a week into his role he has already offered to meet me, and I thank him for that. That is far more than his predecessor offered.

There are four purposes to this debate. The first is to bring the Minister up to speed with the situation; the second is to ensure that there are no delays to building the temporary structures; the third is to deliver justice to the parents and pupils at the school; and the last is to accelerate the promised and much deserved rebuild of St Leonard’s.

First, I will supply a bit of history. In 2010, the then Education Secretary scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme—something that he later regretted. Although that contrition from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is welcome, let’s face it: he is not the one suffering the consequences of a crumbling school—unlike the parents, pupils and teachers in my constituency, who were shocked when St Leonard’s was ordered to close just days before the autumn term began, due to the presence of RAAC.

Parts of St Leonard’s remain shut, 11 weeks on. That has had a serious impact on the lives of my constituents and the children at the school. I will shortly share some of the comments I have received from parents. This is an extremely important year for pupils in year 11 and the sixth-form students in year 13—a crucial year for GCSEs and A-levels. So far, the Government have offered no dispensation for those pupils, who have had more than 11 weeks of their education disrupted.

Let us not forget that, for those studying design and technology, music, sciences and specialist subjects, the disruptions are ongoing: there are no labs, no music rooms and no workshops available. Instead, pupils are being taught in a noisy sports hall and in classes of up to 60. In addition, Ofqual has told me that it is

“not in a position to agree adaptations”

even though items such as coursework and school books were not retrieved from the old building until 27 October. Full face-to-face learning did not commence until 30 October, with parts of the school remaining shut now. It is clearly nonsense that, on the one hand, pupils would be allowed mitigating circumstances if a fire alarm went off in the school during an exam, but, on the other, they are denied exemptions if their schooling has been disrupted for more than 11 weeks.

As my hon. Friend knows, many pupils at St Leonard’s travel from North Durham. I have had representations similar to the ones she has received from parents about the effect on exams. Does she agree that, in spite of that, some of the teachers are doing great work in trying to overcome the difficulties? They are seriously concerned about the effects of the disruption on those children’s exam results next year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. The staff have been working under such difficult circumstances. They have seen first hand the effect the situation is having on their pupils, who have worked so hard. We should remember that they are pupils who also suffered through the pandemic. We are urging the Minister to do all he can. I implore him to change Ofqual’s refusal to make any mitigations. He could perhaps amend the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, or give a one-off dispensation to the pupils in years 11 and 13—anything to help these pupils and their families.

I must mention a pupil at St Leonard’s, Henry Hague, who bravely questioned the Department for Education officials when they visited the school. Henry asked, “Will our difficulties be recognised for A-level and GCSE results?” The DFE said no. What message is that sending to Henry’s generation? It is that the Government are not prepared to help them and that their departmental officials gloss over this injustice. The King’s Speech stated:

“Steps will be taken to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to succeed”.

Does that include the nearly 1,500 pupils at St Leonard’s? It does not seem that way.

Eleven weeks on, parents, pupils and teachers are fed up—fed up with the additional costs and the additional stresses that this situation has put them in. I do not blame them; I would feel exactly the same in their position. To add insult to injury, the school has been asking the DFE to intervene for years. It even lobbied the then Schools Minister, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), in 2017, but nothing came of it.

I have read that if the Tory-led Government—and let us not forget the Liberal Democrats, who supported this as well—had kept the Building Schools for the Future programme, every single school with RAAC, including St Leonard’s, would have been rebuilt by this year. I urge the Minister to lobby the Treasury and No. 10 to reintroduce that programme; perhaps the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities can join him.

I now turn to the comments that I have received from parents. Time does not permit me to share everything, but I want to challenge the new Schools Minister. I know that he has only been in the role for a week, but I ask him to please come to Durham and speak to the parents himself, not just to selected groups, and demonstrate to my constituents that he is on their side and will get this mess cleared up as soon as possible. What my constituents and their children are going through is an injustice. There are no other words to describe it. Parents at St Leonard’s appreciated that Baroness Barran visited and told us that money would be no object, but now they feel like they have been abandoned.

Parents are extremely concerned about the mental wellbeing of their children—not only that, but some have said that their child’s mental health is in decline. Let us not forget that there are additional pressures on children with special educational needs and disabilities, and for children who receive free school meals. I am really concerned because they receive only packed lunches at the moment, rather than hot meals.

This has taken a toll on the mental health of the parents, too. Both parents and pupils are worried about catching up due to lost time in the classroom. They are worried about exams and about the future, especially when so many of these pupils already had their educations disrupted by the pandemic. Parents have also told me that they are having to fork out for private tuition for their kids, and, to compound this stress, they are having to organise childcare and rearrange their own work schedules. Other issues, such as transport, are also eating into teaching time as pupils now have to travel to new locations. That is not at all helped by the greedy bosses at Go North East. Perhaps the Minister could have a word with his colleagues at the Department for Transport and encourage them to give bus drivers the pay rise that they deserve.

I must say that the parents, pupils, and teachers—and all the school staff—have amazed me with their resilience. It is privilege to represent them here. If only previous Ministers demonstrated the same fortitude as my constituents. On that note, I turn to ministerial accountability—or the lack of it. We had a statement from the Secretary of State for Education at the beginning of September, but that was the last proactive statement made by the DFE on the subject in this House.

Ministers had to be summoned via urgent questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). Although we can use named day questions to hold Ministers to account, those are useful only if Departments actually answer them. On issues such as free school meals, I received copy-and-paste replies. On other issues, I never even received a response prior to Prorogation. Responses to my named day questions in the last Session were late, and in this Session one was over a week late. However, I note that the Minister provided a response a few hours ago.

In addition, there was a written statement on school funding in the final week before Prorogation, and again the then Minister had to be summoned to the House via an urgent question. I hope you will agree, Mr Vickers, that this is not a dry procedural issue; it matters to my constituents and their children. In this Session, the DFE and other Departments must up their game and show my constituents the respect they deserve.

I want to finish with some asks. On costs, can we please speed up the process of remunerating the trust? Although I am aware at the Government have paid some of the costs up front, including for Ushaw College, the trust has spent more than £500,000 for critical services, and only £50,000 has been reimbursed so far.

St Benet’s in Ouston in my constituency of North Durham is affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. It is a feeder school for St Leonard’s, and no commitment has yet been given about whether it will be rebuilt. Pupils are already leaving the school, and its budget next year and, ultimately, the feed into St Leonard’s will be affected by that. Does my hon. Friend agree that early decisions need to be made about whether St Benet’s will be rebuilt, and that it should be compensated next year for the fall in pupils?

I could not agree more. The school and the trust are very concerned that pupil numbers will be low next year for obvious reasons. That is partly due to some pupils wanting to move to other schools and partly because the feeder schools are understandably choosing to go elsewhere. We need some assurance about a timeline for getting things somewhere near back to normal, and about what will happen with the St Benet’s rebuild.

Will the Minister please offer a dispensation for pupils in years 11 and 13? Amend the 2009 Act, make a one-off exemption—anything. I would also appreciate it if he would address support for children on free school meals and the lack of hot food.

Finally, I reiterate my challenge to the new Schools Minister: come to Durham, speak to the parents and pupils of St Leonard’s, and let us sort this mess out together.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers, I think for the first time as I respond to a debate in Westminster Hall—

The second. I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and congratulate her on securing a debate on this important subject.

The Government are committed to ensuring that every child in the country gets a first-class education and every opportunity to make the very best of their abilities. I understand that parents, schools and this House are concerned about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, and we are moving decisively to address it while minimising the disruption to education. Before I come to St Leonard’s Catholic School, I want to set out why we are taking this cautious approach to RAAC and how the Government are supporting schools and colleges across England.

Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time, and the managing its risks across all sectors has spanned successive Governments since 1994. Although local authorities, academy trusts and other bodies are directly responsible for school buildings, and we fund them as such, we have taken a direct and proactive approach to RAAC.

We have been talking to schools about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018, when we first published a warning note with the Local Government Association, which asked all responsible bodies to identify any properties constructed using RAAC and to ensure that RAAC properties are regularly inspected by a structural engineer. In February 2021, we issued a guide on identifying it. Concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, in 2022 we decided to take a more direct approach. Last year, we issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies to ask them to identify whether they had or suspected that they had RAAC, and started a significant programme of technical surveys. We have been sending professional surveyors to schools and colleges in England to assess whether RAAC is present. We have eight survey firms contracted to deliver technical surveys to all schools and colleges that have advised us that they suspect they might have RAAC, so that we can rapidly confirm whether it is indeed present.

Although building maintenance is the duty of councils, academy trusts and voluntary-aided school bodies, RAAC cases over the summer reduced the Department for Education’s confidence that school and college buildings with confirmed RAAC should remain in use without mitigations being put in place. Following careful analysis of those cases, we made a precautionary and proactive change. On 31 August, we updated our guidance to schools and colleges so that areas previously deemed to contain non-critical RAAC are now taken out of use until mitigations are put in place. Professional guidance makes it clear that wherever RAAC is found, it needs to be monitored closely. The technical guidance does not say that mitigations need to be put in place in all buildings that contain RAAC.

As of 16 October, responsible bodies had submitted responses to our questionnaire for 99.9% of schools and colleges with blocks built in the target era, and DFE has since resolved the remaining 17. Any required surveys of potential RAAC cases are carried out by one of eight professional survey firms, and the vast majority of schools surveyed to date have been found to have no RAAC. As of 16 October, 214 education settings had confirmed RAAC in some of their buildings. Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders, 202 settings—94%—are providing full-time face-to-face education for all pupils, while 12 have hybrid arrangements that may involve some remote learning on some days. We are supporting these education settings to put in place mitigation plans, and the majority have now returned to full-time face-to-face education or will do so very shortly.

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 dedicated support from one of 80 caseworkers. Project delivery teams are onsite to support schools and colleges to implement mitigation plans. They will work with them to put in place a bespoke plan that supports face-to-face education for all pupils as soon as possible, based on their circumstances. There is not a one-size-fits-all mitigation plan, and what is right for a school or college will depend on a number of individual local factors. Mitigation plans include using other spaces on the school site, in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area until structural works are carried out or temporary buildings are installed.

The Government are funding the emergency work needed to mitigate the presence of RAAC, including installing alternative classroom space where necessary. All reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations or temporarily renting local premises, are being approved. The Government are funding longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to address the presence of RAAC in schools. Schools and colleges will be offered either capital grants to fund refurbishment work to permanently remove RAAC, or rebuilding projects where these are needed, including through the school rebuilding programme. The requirements for each school or college will vary depending on the extent of RAAC and the nature and design of the buildings, and we are working closely with responsible bodies to assess what the right solution is in each case.

I recognise the challenges being faced by the staff and pupils at schools that have had to vacate space due to the presence of RAAC, including St Leonard’s Catholic School in the hon. Lady’s constituency. As she will know, a particular challenge for St Leonard’s is the prevalence of RAAC in the school’s buildings, which has resulted in a significant proportion of them being taken out of use while mitigations are put in place. I thank the headteacher and all the staff at St Leonard’s for their hard work in supporting their pupils through this time. I recognise the pressure staff have been under, and I am committed to continuing to work with the school on how we can support it to respond to RAAC and minimise any disruption to education. The Department has been working closely with the school to implement mitigation plans in order to ensure that face-to-face education can continue for all pupils. This has involved structural works to some of the buildings in addition to arranging alternative, offsite accommodation. We have supported the trust in bringing pupils back into face-to-face learning as quickly as possible to lessen the impact on education. All pupils at St Leonard’s, as the hon. Lady said, have been in full-time face-to-face education since October.

Temporary classrooms are being installed on the school’s playing fields. RAAC has impacted on many of the specialist facilities, as she rightly said, including science labs, IT rooms and D&T areas. We continue to explore options for the delivery of those specialist places as soon as possible.

Pupils due to sit exams next year are currently using specialist facilities at other providers in the local area, with transport provided for pupils. We are working closely with the school to identify how all pupils can have access to specialist facilities. We have provided assistance and facilitated sector support to ensure that children at St Leonard’s have not been disadvantaged, prioritising pupils in examination years. Crucially, we are working with the school on extra education support for pupils. That includes sourcing extra teaching capacity at St Leonard’s with an educational support programme that may include tutoring available for pupils this term.

Qualification-awarding organisations have been working and continue to work with schools including St Leonard’s, although they may have specific difficulties in delivering assessments due to specialist classrooms being unavailable for a time. Awarding organisations have discretion to grant extensions to deadlines for non-examination assessment or coursework, based on a school’s specific circumstances, and will offer as much flexibility as they can when considering such steps. I know that St Leonard’s is meeting one of the awarding organisations with which it works tomorrow, and another is hoping to meet St Leonard’s later this week.

As I set out earlier, the Government are funding the emergency work needed to mitigate the presence of RAAC, and all reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs are being approved. I note what the hon. Lady said about the timeliness of so doing. I will follow up on that, and we will have a chance to discuss it when we meet.

We are supporting St Leonard’s specifically on the funding of temporary classrooms on the school site, we are funding the use of specialist facilities at other providers in the local area, and we will continue to work with St Leonard’s on what further support may be needed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he not also realise that the trust has a problem because, at the feeder school that I mentioned in my constituency, St Benet’s, pupils are already leaving and next year’s roll is going to go down, so St Leonard’s will have difficulty recruiting students next year? Will any compensation be given to the trust and the individual schools because their rolls have gone down through no fault of their own?

I will follow up separately with the right hon. Gentleman about St Benet’s specifically, and we can discuss it further. On overall funding, he will know that there is an established system whereby funding follows the pupil. In the case of St Leonard’s—I was going to come on to this exact point—there is also the prospect of the rebuilding to come, which is a great positive for the school. St Leonard’s is set to be rebuilt as part of our 10-year school rebuilding programme, which, overall, will transform hundreds of schools across England. In the meantime, we will continue to support the school in mitigating the impact of confirmed RAAC.

I am grateful for all the extensive time that the hon. Member for City of Durham has given to this matter, including to this debate. I look forward to meeting her—I believe we will do so next week—to discuss the support for St Leonard’s in more detail. I reassure pupils, parents and staff that the Government are doing whatever it takes to support our schools and colleges in responding to RAAC and minimising the disruption to education. I specifically want to thank the team and staff at St Leonard’s for their hard work in responding to RAAC. The Government have been working and will continue to work closely with affected schools and colleges, including St Leonard’s, to support them, to mitigate affected spaces and to minimise disruption to children’s learning.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.