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School Buildings: Risk of Collapsing

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take in response to the risk status of school buildings collapsing being raised to “critical – very likely” in the Department for Education’s Consolidated annual report and accounts, published on 19 December 2022 (HC 918).

My Lords, safe, well-maintained school buildings are a priority for the Government. We have allocated over £13 billion since 2015, including £1.8 billion this year, to keep schools safe and operational based on their condition need. Our new school rebuilding programme will transform buildings at 500 schools, prioritising core condition and evidence of potential safety issues. Where the department is alerted to significant safety issues with a building that cannot be managed locally, we provide additional support.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but with respect, parents are not interested in what has been spent since 2015, because the DfE’s annual report shows that it is quite inadequate to make the school estate safe. Between 2010 and 2022, political decisions have meant that there has been a 25% decrease in cash terms in schools’ capital spend. In the next few years, the Government may not be in a position to put their plans into place.

Parents need answers now on the safety of the schools their children are going to daily. It is shocking that the Government feel able to withhold information from them, as they did 10 days ago when they reneged on the promised publication of data showing the schools most in danger of collapse. What do the Government have to hide?

The Government do not have anything to hide: they have been proactive in reaching out to schools and engaging with them to understand the condition need of the school estate and the structural issues they face. The noble Lord refers to the publication of the condition data collection reports. I remind him that all the data from those surveys has been shared directly with the schools and responsible bodies concerned, so they have been able to act on the information from those reports.

My Lords, no noble Lords will want to see any of the risks outlined by the department materialise, but we have to prepare for them. Can my noble friend outline whether there have been meetings at the department, walking through what would happen if we had an issue with building material? In particular, have disaster response experts and insurers such as Zurich been included in those meetings? Also, have they taken legal advice on what happens to the personal liability of trustees under health and safety legislation if we should have a building material collapse in one of our schools?

My noble friend asked about some very detailed aspects in that question, and I am happy to respond to her in writing. The department has regular exercises through which we test out a number of different scenarios, including the one my noble friend outlines.

My Lords, many children are taught in temporary accommodation—portakabins, or, as they are known in the trade, demountables, many of which are in the most appalling condition. In reply to a question from my right honourable friend Ed Davey, the Secretary of State could not say how many demountables or portakabins there were, or where they were placed. We need to know where this unsuitable temporary accommodation is, and a programme for replacing it. Will the Minister look into this?

I am more than happy to write to the noble Lord with the details of where those portakabins are. We do have a programme for replacing them and, more broadly, schools that are in poor condition. That programme has been accelerated very significantly: 100 new schools were approved for rebuilding in 2021, and 300 in 2022.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain to the House what her department is doing to understand the condition and safety risks in our school buildings and how the department plans to address these?

I thank my noble friend for her question; I hope I heard it okay. The department works very closely with responsible bodies—academy trusts and local authorities—in managing the school estate. We undertook the first comprehensive survey—the condition data collection survey, known as CDC1—which gave us a picture of the state of every building. I reassure the House that 94% of buildings were found to be in a good condition. We are currently running the follow-up survey, which will allow us to compare the two results and target our condition funding further. We work very closely with schools on advice. The department has now launched a scheme of capital advisers, who go out to schools and support them, and we will be scaling that up in the current year.

My Lords, the Minister seems to believe that more research needs to be done in this area, but we have heard that there are schools falling apart in the UK now. Will the Government accept personal responsibility for any schools that cause problems and endanger children and staff?

I am not sure but I think the noble Lord used the word “complacency”. We are far from complacent. There are elements of the school estate that require further exploration. For example, the CDC survey was not a structural one, so where it identifies issues the responsible body, where appropriate, is beholden to carry out a structural survey. The department is absolutely being proactive and supportive. I meet with trusts and local authorities very regularly regarding these issues. The tone of those meetings is always one of collaboration and working together to address the issues they identify.

My Lords, the latest guidance from the DfE on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete requires regular visual surveys of school buildings. In my diocese in Nottinghamshire there are many smaller, mainly rural schools that are unable to employ site managers who can undertake these surveys. They have to rely on head teachers and staff to make the necessary ongoing visual inspections. Can the Minister say what assistance can be provided to the teaching and leadership teams, particularly in smaller schools, where the budget is already under considerable pressure?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very important issue, on which we wrote proactively to all schools last year. I followed that up in the autumn with a letter asking them to tell us whether they believed they had RAAC in their school buildings. That questionnaire closes at the end of this month, and I would be very grateful if any noble Lords who have influence over these thingsencouraged the responsible bodies. Over two-thirds have responded, and it is really important we get that last third. When we get that information, we will send out technical advisers to support the schools. I invite the right reverend Prelate to write to me directly; we are really keen to work with the schools in his diocese.

My Lords, awareness of the aerated concrete issue is growing, and with it so is anxiety among parents. It is good to hear that the Minister understands why, but in December the Department for Education raised the risk of school buildings in England collapsing to “critical—very likely”. A big part of this is school roofs made of aerated concrete, which is weaker than traditional concrete. That is why the Government intend to remove it from all hospitals, but if it is the right thing to do for hospitals, why is it not the right thing to do soon, quickly or now for schools?

In some cases it will be the right thing to do, but there are definitely examples of RAAC that has been properly maintained and does not pose a risk. We are endeavouring to identify as quickly as possible those schools that believe they have RAAC. Based on our experience to date, a number of schools believe they have it but then it turns out that they do not. We need to find out exactly where it is and whether it has been properly maintained, and then take action. I absolutely assure the House that where we identify any building material that poses a risk to children and staff, we act immediately.