With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the steps that my Department is taking to support education settings to respond to the risk of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, commonly known as RAAC.
Before I go into specifics, I want to be clear that absolutely nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff. It has always been the case that where we are made aware of a building that poses an immediate risk, we have taken immediate action. Parents and children have been looking forward to starting the new term, and I understand that the timing of this change in guidance to schools and colleges will have caused concern and disruption. However, faced with recent cases, including one that emerged right at the end of the school holidays, I believe 100% that this is the right thing to do. That is why we have taken such rapid steps to support our schools and colleges.
There are over 22,000 schools and colleges in England, and the vast majority are unaffected by RAAC. Local authorities and multi-academy trusts are responsible for those buildings, but we have been supporting schools and colleges to ensure that risks resulting from RAAC are mitigated. To date, 52 schools and colleges have those mitigations in place. The majority of those settings will remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing sites, because only a small part of each site is affected. A minority of pupils will be fully or partially relocated to alternative accommodation to continue face-to-face learning while mitigations are put in place.
I want to reassure parents and children that we are taking a deliberately cautious approach to prioritising children’s safety. Because of our proactive questionnaire and surveying programme, we have a better understanding of where RAAC is on the school estate than in most other countries. All schools and colleges that have advised us they suspect they might have RAAC will be surveyed within a matter of weeks—in many cases in a few days. Most suspected cases will not have RAAC. So far when we have surveyed schools, around two thirds of suspected cases do not have RAAC. We will follow the same approach with any new cases through the professional surveying programme.
The vast majority of schools will be unaffected and children should attend school as normal unless parents are contacted by their school. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools explained on Friday, we will publish a list of schools once mitigations are in place. It is right that parents are informed by schools if they are impacted, and that schools have time to work with their Department for Education caseworker on those mitigations.
I am confirming today that we will publish the list of the 156 schools with confirmed cases of RAAC this week, with details of initial mitigations in place. After that, we will provide updated information as new cases of RAAC are confirmed and existing cases resolved. This will include updates on the impact on pupils, such as how many are learning face-to-face and how many are receiving short periods of remote education. Once again, we are doing everything in our power to minimise disruption and avoid remote learning.
I must thank the professional response of leaders, teachers and support staff in the sector, who have acted swiftly to deliver contingency plans. Each impacted school and college has a dedicated caseworker to help implement a mitigation plan. This could include other spaces on the school site or in nearby schools, or elsewhere in the local area, until structural supports or temporary buildings are installed. We have increased the supply of temporary buildings, working with three contractors, and accelerated the installation of these. We have the support of our leading utility companies to ensure that those classrooms can be opened. In the small number of schools with confirmed RAAC, disruption to face-to-face learning has usually lasted a matter of days.
With regard to funding, as the Chancellor said, we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe. That includes paying for the emergency mitigation work needed to make buildings safe, including alternative classroom space where necessary. Where schools need additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations, we are actively engaging with every school affected in order to put appropriate support in place. We will also fund the longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects, where these are needed, to rectify RAAC.
Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time. Indeed, the question of how to manage its risks across all sectors has spanned successive Governments since 1994. My Department alerted the sector about the potential risks of RAAC in 2018, following a sudden roof collapse at a primary school. We published a warning note with the Local Government Association, which asked all responsible bodies to
“Identify any properties constructed using RAAC”
“ensure that RAAC properties are regularly inspected by a structural engineer”.
In February 2021 we issued a guide on how to identify RAAC. Concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, in 2022 we decided to take a more direct approach. We issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies for all 22,000 schools to ask them to identify whether or not they had, or suspected to might have, RAAC. Responsible bodies have submitted responses to the questionnaire for 95% of schools with blocks built in the target period.
In September 2022 we started a programme where the DFE sent a professional surveyor to assess whether RAAC is present. If RAAC was present, the previous DFE guidance was to grade it as critical or non-critical, and only take buildings out of use for critical RAAC cases. Such was the level of our concern, however, that I asked officials to seek evidence of risks, including to non-critical RAAC. It is because of this proactive approach that we discovered details of three new cases over the summer, where RAAC that would have been graded as non-critical had failed without warning. The first was in a commercial setting. The second was in a school in a different educational jurisdiction. In that instance, the plank that failed remained suspended, resting on a steel beam. As the plank was fully intact, DFE engineers were able to investigate the situation. In their professional judgment, the panel affected would have been previously rated as non-critical, but it had failed.
Ministerial colleagues and I were already extremely concerned, but then a third failure of RAAC panels occurred, at a school in England in late August. This was a panel that had previously been graded as non-critical. Because children’s safety is our absolute priority, it was right to make the difficult decision to change our guidance for education settings, so that areas previously deemed to contain non-critical RAAC are now being closed.
I want to set out why we are taking this more cautious approach with the education estate in England. Professional guidance is clear that wherever RAAC is found, it needs to be monitored closely. The school estate is very disparate, consisting of 22,000 settings with more than 64,000 individual blocks. Monitoring RAAC closely is therefore very difficult on the estate, and many responsible bodies do not have dedicated estates professionals on all school or college sites at all times. That is why the approach we are taking is the right one for our schools and colleges. My officials have worked closely with experts in this field. Chris Goodier, professor of construction engineering and materials at Loughborough University, has said:
“DfE has been employing some of the best engineers on this and have consulted us and the Institution of Structural Engineers”.
The Government’s priority is for every child in the UK to go to school safely. My officials have been engaging urgently with the devolved Administrations to discuss our findings and offer support in order to understand the situation in relation to RAAC on school estates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Last week I wrote to offer my support, including further official or ministerial-level engagement, and to facilitate discussions between our technical experts.
I am aware that this policy change occurred during the recess, and that I was therefore unable to notify the House in advance. For that I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope you understand why I felt that I had to take the decision when I did. We are taking an extremely cautious approach to the issue, but I believe that this is the right thing to do when it comes to the safety of children. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.
I will turn in a moment to the sorry story of how we got here, but let me first ask the House to reflect on two things. First, the safety of children and staff in schools today should be our highest priority, and while the voices of children are rarely heard in this place, it is their welfare, their hopes and their fears that should be uppermost in our minds today. Secondly, the mark and measure of each of us as politicians is our willingness to take and to accept responsibility: collective responsibility, not just for our own actions but for those of the Governments in which we serve—and this week, as the school year begins, there is an awful lot of responsibility for Ministers to take.
What an utter shambles this is. The defining image of 13 years of Conservative Government is one of children cowering under steel props, there to stop the ceiling falling in on their heads. Thirteen years into a Conservative Government, the public realm is literally crumbling around the next generation. The Education Secretary said this morning that in her view it was not the job of her Department to ensure the safety of our children’s schools, and that she was doing a good job. Schools are literally at risk of collapse. She is the Education Secretary, so whose responsibility does she think it is?
This is the tragic endgame of the sticking-plaster politics of the last 13 years. Children have been failed by this Conservative Government. It is RAAC that is our focus today, but the issue is wider and deeper across our schools and across our country. It is deeper because school buildings are only part of the wider failure in our education system, over which Ministers have been presiding for 13 long years. It is wider because thousands upon thousands of schools and other public buildings were built in the last century, and were not intended to last for more than a couple of decades. This was system build—quick, cheap, too often involving asbestos, and not expected still to be there in 30 years’ time. That is why the previous Labour Government took responsibility and began rebuilding them, the length and breadth of our country. That is why we launched the Building Schools for the Future programme, to give our children the start they deserved. That is because then—as now and as always—Labour puts children first.
The Schools Minister today is the same Schools Minister who scrapped Labour’s plans as one of his very first acts back in 2010. In 2010 the Conservatives scaled back plans to just 150 school rebuilding projects each year, slowing the pace of renewal. In 2021, when their then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—delivered a spending review, he cut the pace again to just 50 a year, and today the previous permanent secretary at the Department for Education told of the Department’s bid to double the schools rebuilding programme in 2021 being knocked back by the then Chancellor, who instead of doubling it, almost halved it.
I spoke earlier of responsibility. The Secretary of State was clear just a few hours ago that she refuses to accept any responsibility, so who on the Government Benches today will take responsibility for decision after decision to slash spending on school safety? I thank the Secretary of State for having addressed some of the questions that families across this country will have, but I am afraid that there are many, many more. Time is short, so I will ask many of them in writing, but I hope that she will be able to answer these questions now, and to answer all my questions in full.
Why is the Secretary of State still refusing to publish the list of affected schools, promptly and in full, today? Why did the condition data collection survey between 2017 and 2019 not look in more detail at these issues? What strategy does the Department have right now for the wider condition of system build schools and other educational premises that are long past their design lifespan? How many other educational settings are currently believed, or suspected, by the Department to contain RAAC where that is yet to be confirmed? Do emergency services have the information they need, should something go wrong? What is the estimated timeline for completing the necessary repairs in affected schools? How long will students face disruption during this process? Which capital budgets are being raided and which priorities are being downgraded today to fund the works that are happening now? What assessment has been made of the risks of a RAAC failure in the context where asbestos is also present? There are many more questions I could ask, but the most important is this: who in this Government in the months ahead will take some responsibility for sorting out the chaos that our children face?
I thank the hon. Lady, and of course that is me, but what matters is what you do. When I was given new information and had to consider the impact that this would have on our schools and children, I took action even though it was politically difficult. Yesterday, when the hon. Lady was asked about Wales and RAAC, she waved away concerns and said that there was no problem. Why? Because it involved a Labour Government with Labour policies. Today, two schools closed in Wales just as they start their surveying programme. We started our surveying programme in March 2022. One of these involves taking decisions and being honest with the public; one is trying to score political points. I answered her question: the information will be provided this week—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think I answered the hon. Lady’s question. The information will be published this week. Everything will be fully funded: the mitigation, any revenue that is required on a case-by-case basis, and also the rebuilding of the schools.
When it comes to doing a good job, I make no apologies for praising the work of the Department for Education. Not my work, no, but the work of colleagues, of schools and of professionals who have helped to ensure that we are not sending children back to school without the guarantee that they will be safe. I have had teams working for weeks and all weekend to get portacabins, to find alternative sites and to help put in place urgent mitigations. Those people are doing a brilliant job and I want to thank each and every one of them.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to put the safety of children first and to take a cautious approach, but I know from speaking to headteachers in my constituency that her Department has been speaking to schools about RAAC and how to mitigate it not just for weeks or months, but for years. One of my schools, in Cranbourne in Basingstoke, already has in place a plan with her Department for how to resolve that problem, but the new technical guidance has thrown up two suspected cases of RAAC in my constituency. Could she outline for parents how quickly those suspicions will be either confirmed or negated, so that those schools can continue to function fully in the future?
I thank my right hon. Friend, her local authority and her responsible bodies for responding to the questionnaire. Ninety-five per cent. have done so, which is why I am really worried about the 5% that have not. We will survey those with suspected cases in the next few weeks—we will probably get to them in the next two weeks. About two thirds of those surveyed turn out not to have RAAC, but we want to know exactly where it is. We want to make sure we completely mitigate all those cases.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.
Obviously, the safety of children is paramount and urgent actions have to be taken to resolve this situation. The Chancellor said yesterday that the Government will “spend what it takes” to sort out this problem, yet Treasury sources have admitted that there will be no new money to pay for the remedial work, with the cash instead coming out of the Department for Education’s existing capital budget. Can the Secretary of State give us some clarity on that? Given that existing budgets are already extremely stretched, what discussions is she having with Treasury colleagues to access additional funding?
The Secretary of State mentioned the devolved Administrations, and clearly this affects buildings across the UK. The Scottish Government’s budget has already been cut, so can she confirm that there will be additional funding for the devolved Administrations to carry out the remedial work that will have to take place in those jurisdictions?
The Sunday Mirror has reported that up to 7,000 schools could be at risk but have yet to be assessed, and a National Audit Office report in June found that 38% of English school buildings had passed their recommended RAAC lifespan. This means that around 700,000 children in England are being taught in schools that require major rebuilding.
The Secretary of State mentioned the questionnaire that has been sent out to 22,000 schools. Can she give some clarity about the responders? What expertise do they have to make the assessments to which she refers? Given the figures I have just quoted, it would be good to know the number of schools affected, as a number in the hundreds seems unrealistic. Can we have a more realistic figure for the number of schools that are likely to need work to be done?
Finally, can the Secretary of State guarantee that children in schools that have not been closed are absolutely safe to return to lessons?
I do not know whether we can believe everything we read in the press, but I have read that Scotland does not plan to close schools with RAAC, which is a bit worrying. We will continue to share technical information with our counterparts, and we have offered meetings.
When we receive new information and new evidence, we sometimes need to take a new approach. That is the decision I took very recently, and I think it is the right decision. I would be very happy to work with the hon. Lady and her colleagues to share more information.
Every year we have a capital budget, and we are investing significantly in our schools. The overall capital budget in the 2021 spending review was £19 billion, of which £7 billion is allocated for 2023-24. When we come to the next phase, we have allocation to rebuild some of our schools, but we will look in detail at what more will be required.
The Secretary of State will know that St Andrew’s Junior School in Hatfield Peverel is now closed, and other schools in my constituency, including two large secondary schools, are experiencing partial closures. They have mitigations in place, and there is a lot of work under way. I hope she will join me in thanking Essex County Council, in particular, for the extraordinary leadership it has shown in working with schools. I also put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness Barran, who has been supporting Essex MPs and families.
I have some specific questions. Promises have been made on capital costs, but will there be support for revenue impacts such as travel, switching to remote learning and, in particular, children with special educational needs? Our county has a very high level of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and we need to understand that.
If I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me ask about caseworkers, who have been mentioned. We need to know whether or not they are going to engage with MPs; my experience to date has been that they are not prepared to speak to MPs about what is going on in schools. Finally, what is Ofsted’s role in this? If it is going to be looking at schools, will it account for disruption caused by this issue and for the impact it will have on school exams, particularly for children who are being examined this year?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and I very much join her in praising Essex County Council. There are a lot of cases in Essex—there is a concentration there—and it has done an amazing job. It has answered all the questionnaires in great detail and it is very much gripping the issue, and we are working very closely together.
On revenue, we have said that on a case-by-case basis, if the school will come to the Department and tell us what revenue impact there is, we will make sure that it has the support it needs. Caseworkers are currently focused on working with the schools; it is very early in this process. We are mitigating a lot of the work, but not everybody is as far ahead as some of the schools to which my right hon. Friend referred. We have opened a hotline—a helpline—for Members of Parliament. We extended the hours so that it was open at the weekend. I know that some people got their “Dear colleague” communication and did not notice it until the helpline had closed, so we had that open at the weekend—it will be open all through the week as well. They will be getting the same information from the caseworker system, and that is how it will work.
When the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, slashed the schools repair budget, despite being warned of the danger to children, how big a factor in that decision was the fact that neither he nor most of the Conservative Cabinet actually use state schools for their own children?
It is simply not correct to say that the size of the school rebuilding programme has been cut in recent years; it is currently at the same scale as was announced in 2020, which is roughly in line with the scale of rebuilding projects being delivered per year since the start of the previous programme. [Interruption.] So, if Members want to listen, it is the same scale of rebuilding projects being delivered per year as since the start of the previous programme. The priority school building programme will continue and we will continue to fund the schools.
Thank you for calling a state-educated Conservative Member, Madam Deputy Speaker.
May I, through the Secretary of State, thank Baroness Barran, who reached out immediately to me, together with a highly competent senior official, when this problem arose in one of my local schools this March? Not only did they do that, but they seized the opportunity to encourage a resending of the questionnaire to the network of schools, through the contact that I had with one of my local headteachers. I have rarely, in 26 years in this House, seen a Department so proactive on an issue as this Department has been on this one, and I thank it for that.
I thank my right hon. Friend, from one state-educated person to another. It is true that we have taken action quickly, but Baroness Barran, in particular, has been working on this since way before I was in the Department and has done an amazing job. I thank him for recognising that. She has really pushed us to make sure that we get additional information, get the evidence and have all the surveys back, so that we know, unlike most other places, where RAAC is in our schools. When I was tasked with the new evidence, I could identify exactly which schools were impacted immediately because of all the work that she had done.
As we have heard already that the capital budgets for this year are going to be raided to pay for the Government’s failure and incompetence over the past 13 years on maintaining and rebuilding our schools, can the Minister just explain to me what will happen to schools, such as Hall Road Academy, in my constituency, that are desperately in need of a rebuild? Will that school get the rebuild now? Finally, if she is really short of cash in her Department, perhaps one option might be to bring in a swear box to raise a few bob. [Laughter.]
I thank the right hon. Lady for her joke, but as a Scouser I have a bit of a higher bar, I think.
In addition to our targeted work on RAAC, we have continued to invest in improving the condition of the school estate, with over £15 billion allocated since 2015, including £1.8 billion committed for 2023-24. That is informed by the consistent data on the condition of the estate. By the way, the Labour programme, about which there were scathing reports, did not even look at the condition—it was not a factor or a criterion. On top of that, we will transform 500 schools through our school rebuilding programme, prioritising those buildings in the poorest condition and those where there is evidence of safety issues.
Will individual schools have direct access to the money and the temporary accommodation, if they need it? And will every local education authority make an urgent statement about their role in commissioning the schools in the first place and about maintenance, where they are responsible?
We have put a caseworker in place so that each school can work with that caseworker, as well as having access to the temporary accommodation and the company that can do the propping work, which we have already secured, or to additional surveying, if required. We are working closely with local authorities, but I urge the 5% of local authorities that have not responded to the questionnaire to respond—that is more important than ever.[Official Report, 18 September 2023, Vol. 737, c. 10MC.]
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, but I urge her to do two things. First, will she impress on the Prime Minister that this is a national-scale problem that will reach across all Departments, as we know there are other affected public buildings? She mentioned putting children’s safety first, and I am sure we all agree with her, but in her discussions with the devolved authorities, will she impress upon the Scottish Government the need for urgency? As she mentioned, they are still saying, as of today, that the buildings are safe. Two primary schools have been named in my constituency and I am concerned that perhaps the Scottish Government are not acting with the urgency that is necessary.
There are two ways of going about this. The first is to go through the responsible bodies. To be fair, that was what we were doing until 2019, but then we did not think that we were being quick enough. We did not have a good enough picture of where RAAC was and what state it was in. That was why we started the direct questionnaire and surveying programme that has enabled us to have the data to take quick action when we got new evidence over the summer. We will continue to share that new evidence with the devolved Administrations. I believe that sometimes it is right to take a direct approach. That is not typical for a Government Department in Whitehall, but sometimes it is the correct thing to do. That is what we have done, and I think that will put us in good stead for being decisive about keeping pupils safe.
The three schools known to have RAAC in my constituency have all opened safely to all students this week. I particularly thank the headteacher and team at Springfield primary school. They had to close their year 5 and 6 classrooms last term, but immediately, within a week, the students were found accommodation in other schools. All the building work has been completed over the summer and the prefabs that had been ordered just in case are now being released to other schools.
It is right that children’s safety comes first, but it is also right that we are mindful of the language that we use towards children and do not make them more frightened than they need to be. I would encourage colleagues not to exaggerate or generalise the risks, but to work with each affected school calmly to get the issue resolved for children.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working proactively. We have the information, the skills and the people who are going to support us. What is most important is that we minimise the disruption to children. As my right hon. Friend points out about her own constituency, in most cases there is minimal impact, but we have to work together to ensure children are back in school as soon as possible.
I was a teacher at a secondary school when the Building Schools for the Future funding was cut by the Conservative-led Government in 2010. Has the Department for Education carried out an assessment comparing schools that had their BSF funding cut with those that have RAAC?
Yes, I have, and there are not very many. There are two things that we need to know about Building Schools for the Future. The first is that it was not based on condition, and the second is that it did not include a single primary school. Many of the schools that we have identified—156 of them—are primary schools. I was not involved in the Building Schools for the Future programme, but I have looked at it in great detail. I remember it from growing up in Knowsley. The schools that were built did not contain a single classroom wall. Known locally as the “wacky warehouses”, they cost a fortune and then cost millions to put right afterwards. I point the hon. Lady to the James review, which was pretty scathing about the programme, saying that it was bureaucratic, that it failed to deliver—I think it delivered 180 schools—that it was not based on condition and that it built wacky warehouses in Knowsley.
As the MP with eight identified schools with RAAC issues and two others under investigation, which is more, I think, than in any other constituency, may I thank her for her exemplary statement? It was perfectly rational and demonstrated that she personally has taken on her responsibilities despite the political dangers that she has put herself into. May I just ask about the caseworkers? Is there one caseworker for each school? If not, how many schools is each caseworker having to deal with? It would also be helpful if we could contact the caseworkers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said.
Finally, may I ask about the school buildings that have already closed? Mistley Norman in my constituency, for example, was closed in July, and the Secretary of State will know that I had a meeting with Baroness Barran about that in July, which means that we have been working on this long before the issue blew up last week. Will the capital funding be made available to rebuild Mistley Norman School?
My hon. Friend is right that he has many impacted schools in his area. On capital funding, the Chancellor was very clear that we will do whatever is necessary to keep children safe. There are three stages. The first is the funding to make sure that we put all the mitigations in place. The second is to look at revenue funding if that is required on an ongoing basis, and the third is the rebuilding programme. On the caseworkers, there are just over 50 of them, so they are more or less dealing with two schools each. On the matter of access to the caseworkers, as I have said, right now they are focusing on the schools, but the helpline is supposed to have access to the same information. Perhaps we will consider a specific approach for Essex MPs, so that we can go through the work in detail with some of the caseworkers, because I think that could be helpful.
After Grenfell, many of us raised concerns about the risks to buildings from other materials, but they fell on deaf ears. This morning, the Prime Minister said that some 900 schools could be affected. Warnings were made to the Government many years ago, but they fell on deaf ears. Can the Secretary of State explain to the British people—parents who are rightly concerned about whether their kids and their kids’ schools could be affected—that their children will be safe and that she will put in place the support and resources that are urgently needed to respond to this crisis, which has been brought about by the negligence and incompetence of her Government?
The hon. Lady needs to know that the Labour party was also warned about this issue in 1999, 2002 and 2007, and what did it do? Nothing—not a single survey. Yesterday, the shadow Secretary of State dismissed concerns about RAAC in Wales, because the Government there were following Labour policies. As soon as a school collapsed in 2018, we issued a warning to all responsible bodies that they were the ones that were responsible. We also issued guidance on how to identify RAAC, and, in answer to the hon. Lady’s question, instructed them to use structural engineers to do that. We also thought that we needed to go further, which is why we are probably the only country in the world that has a good understanding of where RAAC is in all our schools.
Obviously, this is a very serious issue, but when I talked to the chief executive of a large, multi-academy trust at the end of last week and over the weekend, he said that the Government had absolutely made the right decision in the guidance that they had given. As we have heard, we are particularly affected in Essex—about half the schools are in Essex. Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe that you are very concerned about six schools in your own constituency. While we are working through those, one issue that has been raised with me is that of ongoing funding. I know that the Secretary of State has already addressed this, but can she again confirm from the Dispatch Box that any additional revenue costs—reasonable revenue costs—will be met so that budgetary concerns will not be a barrier to delivering face-to-face education that our children so richly deserve?
I am glad that my hon. Friend used the word “reasonable”, because the reason we have asked for the revenue to come on an individual basis is that they will all differ. Obviously, we need to ensure that it is reasonable, and that it is put in place. We will certainly support any school with additional funding as is required. Due to the fact that, as he mentioned, almost half the cases are in Essex, it probably warrants setting up a working group with the Essex MPs, so that we can work through them in great detail.
I believe Birmingham is quite badly affected, if the Secretary of State would like to come and hang out with us. I have a number of schools in my constituency that have RAAC confirmed, and some where it is suspected. One particular concern of the headteachers is that they are this week expecting Ofsted to come in, having had to completely redo all their timetables and change all their teaching arrangements over the weekend. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can give some assurances that that will not be allowed to happen where that is the case for any of these schools.
On timing, the Secretary of State said earlier that she had teams working for weeks on procuring portacabins, which suggests that she knew before 31 August that more schools would need to close all or part of their building. Can she explain why she had people procuring portacabins for weeks?
Very happily. The hon. Lady might work out that I do know this in great detail. The portacabins that we were procuring for weeks were for the 56 buildings that we had already identified with RAAC that were critical. We took those immediately out of use, so we had that need for those 52—it was actually 52. The 104 that were non-critical are now deemed critical because of this new evidence, so we will continue to do that. We have contacted more suppliers already and we have that in place, because we do not want to have a delay there.
I am always happy to visit the hon. Lady in Birmingham. In terms of the particular Ofsted case, if she wants to give me the details we will see, if it is appropriate, whether we can delay it. Ofsted usually delays if there are some specific issues within a school, so we can raise that with it.
Putting the safety of children first is obviously right, but the Secretary of State will know that Kingsdown School, a special school in my constituency of Southend, houses some of the most vulnerable children in Southend and indeed the south-east, and is currently closed due to RAAC. The headmistress, Louise Robinson, and the new cabinet portfolio holder Helen Boyd at Southend City Council have been brilliant, working around the clock—I thank the Schools Minister too for his support last week—but they need three things. They need the result of a risk assessment, some demountable classrooms and some structural remediation measures. Will the Secretary of State please write and tell us exactly when those will materialise?
I am very happy to. I know that Kingsdown was one of the first identified, and obviously has additional special needs as well. A caseworker is looking into that. Also, just so that it is clear why we made the decision not to publish all the names initially, Kingsdown’s name was published by the council and it was inundated by media, which made it incredibly difficult. The school asked for our help in ensuring that it did not have too much of a media distraction, so we really needed to be conscious of that as well.
The Department for Education itself assessed in 2020 that it needed around £7 billion a year for capital funding for schools. The Department bid, after some negotiation, for £4 billion in the 2020 spending review but was allocated only £3.1 billion. That was after over a decade of underinvestment in capital and maintenance in school buildings. Can the Secretary of State not acknowledge that some of these things are chickens coming home to roost?
I commend the work of Baroness Barran and county councillor Tony Ball and all his team at Essex County Council, who have worked their socks off ultimately to keep children safe, but I regret to tell the Secretary of State that, having now managed to speak to all the heads of affected schools in my constituency, there are a number of differences between what I have been told by her Department and the ground truth that I have been told by the headteachers. For instance, back in July Hockley Primary was promised eight relocatable classrooms ready to go by today; they now will not be available until mid-November. When the list is published later this week, can the Secretary of State please ensure that the information in it is absolutely accurate and up to date, because that is the best way to reassure parents, staff and pupils, not least those parents who will be very upset if they hear with virtually no notice that they have to take weeks off work because their children cannot go to school?
My right hon. Friend raises one of the challenges that we face. In the case of Hockley, soft ground has meant that we have to put footings in place before we can put in the temporary accommodation. Each site is different to some degree. That was one reason we were taking time to ensure mitigations could be put in by school. It is difficult because each school could have specific circumstances. I am afraid that the list and the information will evolve over time as we get more and more details, and the caseworkers will keep us up to date on that.
Today the Secretary of State has proved the value of having media studies on the curriculum.
On the serious point, I have been notified by both my local education authorities, Tameside and Stockport, that no schools under their control are affected. What they cannot tell me is whether any of the voluntary-aided, academies or free schools within their areas are affected. I would like to know how soon we will get those assurances. On Russell Scott Primary School in the Denton part of my constituency, which we have battled to get successfully added to the Government’s school rebuilding programme—it has its own issues, not associated with RAAC—can the Secretary of State assure me and the headteacher that it will not be bumped down the programme to patch up this mess?
If the hon. Gentleman has schools impacted in his area—multi-academy trusts—they will have heard directly from us and he should have a “Dear colleague” letter with the details. Then he can contact the helpline to get more information, if he wants to. I thank him for his kind comments about media studies; I think it proves that that is not what I did before I became a politician. In terms of Building Schools for the Future, it will be based on condition and need, but of course we will work with him and his school and tell him its condition and need and whether it is prioritised.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to prioritise the safety of our children and to close schools where necessary. Will she now give the House an assurance that those 600 priority schools will be surveyed as quickly as possible? Then we can move on to all schools and find out where RAAC is present, and take the appropriate remediation for every school that has it.
I assure my hon. Friend that it is already below that number because we have been surveying every day. We have now contracted eight building surveying companies—we had three; we now have eight—to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to do that as quickly as possible. We will do a survey for all the ones that are suspected to have RAAC—as I said, most of them will probably not go on to be confirmed to have it—and we hope to get through them all in the next couple of weeks.
As one of the Ministers who came into the DFE back in 2010, we found that, contrary to some of the claims made by those on the Opposition Front Bench, Building Schools for the Future was hugely expensive, hugely bureaucratic, involving elaborate quangos, with most of the money being spent before a single brick had been laid, and mostly built with private finance initiative funding, saddling schools with interest payments for 30 years. How many of these schools may have been PFI-funded, and who will pick up the remedial work bill for them?
My hon. Friend reminds us all of the other legacy of the Building Schools for the Future programme: the PFIs that probably they are still paying for today. The Department has taken a different approach and has reduced costs by simplifying the design and construction, with more standardisation of design, and finding economies of scale by offering central procurement, and we have reduced the cost significantly of each school. On PFI, I will have get back to him, because I do not know how many of these, if any, have any remaining PFI—certainly not under our watch.
In Newham, we have 8,363 children in temporary accommodation thanks to the Government’s housing policies. That is more homeless children in one borough than in three whole English regions combined. At the moment, we have one primary school confirmed with RAAC and several others, including a very large secondary school, still in limbo. School closures may therefore be a problem for thousands of children who, as during covid, will not have access to remote learning. Can I at least be assured today that, this time, this Government will prioritise children without access and provide particular and individual resources to support their education, so that they do not endure yet another blight on their life chances due to the continuing incompetence of this Government?
I assure the hon. Lady that this is nothing like covid; it is going to be much quicker. We will reduce the impact on face-to-face learning as much as possible and of course we will prioritise getting children back and making sure that they are in school. On Newham, I am sure she is absolutely delighted that, due to the reforms of the Conservative Government, it is now one of the best-performing areas in the country.
I am not aware of any RAAC schools in Stoke-on-Trent, but we have a number of schools with wider serious structural and safety issues, particularly Trentham Academy in my constituency, which we hoped would be included in the school rebuilding programme, but that was stopped because of the PFI agreements. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, just as with all the RAAC schools, we assess schools for wider structural and safety issues and look at how we can ensure that the schools that are part of PFI agreements can have those issues addressed as well?
I know my hon. Friend has raised that particular school before and has had a couple of meetings on it. The school rebuilding programme is focused on condition and we will specifically work with him to understand what options there are for that school and what PFI is doing to stop its eligibility for rebuilding.
Children in Somerset have gone back to school and are going back to school this week in buildings that may collapse at any moment. At least three schools in Somerton and Frome may have this weak concrete. Will the Education Secretary apologise for all the stress that this Government have caused families because they have slashed repair bills and sat on their hands for months?
I thank the hon. Lady for her maiden question. It is a little ill-informed. If the schools in Somerton and Frome are identified, she will have a “Dear colleague” letter; I will just check that has happened, because I know she is new to the House. If the schools are suspected, as long as her local authorities or multi-academy trusts have responded, we will be coming to do the surveys as soon as possible and then we will have mitigation actions in place to make sure that there is minimum disruption to children in Somerton and Frome.
To reassure Erewash residents, will my right hon. Friend reconfirm her commitment to the school rebuilding programme, specifically the two recently approved projects at Kirk Hallam Community Academy and Saint John Houghton Catholic Voluntary Academy in my constituency, and can she reassure me that the timetable for those rebuilds will be unaffected by the need to carry out repairs to school buildings found to contain RAAC?
I think I had probably better get the names of the schools and check the details, but I believe that they will still be going ahead if they have already been approved. If my hon. Friend can give me the details, I will make sure I get an answer to her quickly.
The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee rightly drew attention to the National Audit Office report that highlighted the serious underfunding of the capital programme in the Department for Education, which is the real cause of these problems. That report also said:
“DfE currently lacks comprehensive information on the extent and severity of potential safety issues across the school estate”.
That is a damning indictment. The Secretary of State cannot stand up in this House today and say that our children are safe, because she does not know whether any more systemic failures of schools presenting safety problems are going to occur.
It seems that the risk of RAAC being present in two of my South Leicestershire schools is very low, but as yet it has not been ruled out. Would my right hon. Friend please confirm that she and her team in the Department for Education will work as fast as is reasonably possible to ensure that the schools affected are given the information they need to inform parents?
I am not sure of the status of those two schools, but if their questionnaires have been provided and they are on the suspected RAAC list, there will be surveyors going in in the next couple of weeks. At that point, if they are identified as having RAAC, we will immediately take action similar to what we did last week with the 104. Parents will be informed immediately if that action has to be taken, but, as I said earlier, two thirds of schools that are suspected do not turn out to have RAAC.
Seven Mills primary school in my constituency was found to have RAAC following an inspection earlier in the year. It is a small school and has had to close its main hall, which is its biggest space. I visited the school last Friday and saw for myself the logistical challenges that the school leadership have had to overcome at such short notice to ensure that they can deliver teaching, school lunches and physical education from other spaces. While the school is not one of those most severely impacted by RAAC, I am concerned that schools in this category, which at present are able to remain open, will be left behind in capital works and in receiving the associating DFE funding and support for those works. Every school impacted by RAAC needs to be remedied as quickly as possible, so what assurances can the Secretary of State provide that schools that are currently able to remain open will not have to endure disruption for a longer period because they may be deemed a lower priority?
It is our intention that all the schools remain open as much as possible and we expect that most of them will. I thank the headteacher and all of the staff at the hon. Lady’s school, because they have worked very quickly, they have done a lot to make sure that they move things around within the school system so that they can keep children learning and they have been flexible. If there is disruption that is incurring costs, or if they wish to access temporary accommodation or other costs, they can talk to the Department for Education and see whether they are eligible for that programme.
Order. We have a problem with time here this afternoon, because we have a great deal of business to get through later today and I am aware that more than 30 people are still trying to catch my eye to ask a question. Normally, I would allow a statement to run for an hour. I will not curtail this statement after an hour, because I appreciate that every Member who is here has a specific problem to bring to the Secretary of State, but I ask, please, for short questions, which will allow the Secretary of State to give short answers. We have done all of the political bits, and we do not need any more of that—just the questions and the answers, please.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—my question will be short. Multi-academy trusts are not getting in touch with MPs. Could the Secretary of State please ensure they do? I have two that are not in my constituency. That brings me to another problem: as the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), is aware, Haygrove School in my constituency is a brand-new building that has now basically been condemned. The problem is that people think it is the cement. That building is two years old. I am afraid, Secretary of State, that decisions need to be made now about the building being re-done as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend should have the details of schools in his constituency in a “Dear colleague” letter, and he can phone the helpline to get information on those schools. In addition, I am sure that the schools would appreciate him getting in touch. If he has any difficulty with that, I or my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister would be very happy to help him.
One positive from this farce is that we should hear no more lectures from Conservative Members about us not fixing the roof when the sun was shining. How detailed and accurate will the list be when the Secretary of State produces it? I ask because she emailed me on Friday night saying that no schools in my constituency were affected—one may be a possibility—but on Sunday I heard from a headteacher who has had to make arrangements because RAAC had been discovered in their school. The Secretary of State tells me that no schools in my constituency have a problem, but I know for a fact that that information is incorrect, so can she give an assurance that, when it comes out, the list will be 100% accurate?
It is very difficult to ensure 100% accuracy on a moving feast, but I will look at the case in question. We have caseworkers and a caseworker system, we have identified all the cases and the hon. Member should have all the details of all the cases in his constituency in the “Dear colleague” letter. If anyone does not have that, please contact me and the Schools Minister, and we will check it out.
May I thank the Secretary of State for giving such a measured and reasonable statement in these very trying circumstances? The timing is terrible, as she acknowledged, but it is right that we put children’s safety first. Can she confirm that the reason the timing is terrible is that new facts have come to light, and that is why we have had to make the decision that we have?
Yes, I can confirm that those that have been identified as having RAAC—there are two types: critical and non-critical condition—will have had action. We changed the action for the non-critical. Those that may be waiting are those with suspected RAAC, for which we will be doing surveys in the next two weeks. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has a school in mind, but it could be in either of those categories.
The information that I have from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that there are no confirmed cases of RAAC in Stroud schools, but three schools are taking surveys as a precautionary measure, and those surveys will be accelerated. Will she take this opportunity to reassure parents and schools? If they listen to the media or to those on the Opposition Front Bench, they will think that every school in the country is crumbling, which is absolutely not the case. Will she also talk to the Department about ensuring that headteachers get information ahead of the public and the media, because we know that that has not always happened, and it is important to families?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. To put the scale into context, there are 22,500 schools in the country and 156 have been confirmed with RAAC. Of those that are suspected, which will go through the survey process, probably a third or less will be confirmed with RAAC. So it is important that we put that into context. We have taken tough decisions and the right action. The vast majority of parents, teachers and children will not be impacted by RAAC in our schools.
What has been exposed is how close the Government were prepared to go to catastrophe in one of our schools before they took last-minute action this summer, just before schools went back. A school in my constituency has had to close substantial parts of its buildings. A letter from the DFE, following their discussions, says:
“As officials discussed with”
“the immediate actions should be treated as a short-term measure and you should already be developing a long-term plan for remediation of RAAC panels in your building.”
The next paragraph goes on:
“Please note the building survey in June 2023 was carried out as part of the DFE’s central RAAC Assessment Programme. As such, it should be considered in addition to, rather than in place of, any professional advice that you seek.”
Just exactly how will the Government determine what they will pay for? What work will they accept? Will it be the professional judgment of the people the schools engage, or will it be the surveyors from the eight companies that the Secretary of State has just spoken about? How will these matters be resolved going forward, because the devil in these things is always in the detail?
Order. Before the Secretary of State answers, we are not doing very well on the short short questions, are we? Of course, it is up to colleagues. If the House decides that it wants to vote at midnight tonight, that is fine by me, but I think that it is probably not the consensus, so please let us take some action now: everybody look at what they have written down and cut it in half.
The Secretary of State knows that in July I met the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), when St James’ Primary School in my constituency was found to have RAAC. The headteacher Mr Tutt and his staff and governors have done a heroic job in finding space for the children and having works done during the summer to restore the classrooms. Will the Minister meet me straight after this statement to confirm that they now pass muster so that the school can reopen as planned?
Yes, I can confirm that the Minister for Schools is doing a meeting with MPs after this, and he can meet after that. Those involved have done an excellent job, and I thank them all for the action that they have taken. We will, by the end of today, work with my right hon. Friend to ensure that we know how that can be finalised.
There are conflicting reports about William Cassidi Primary School, St Michael’s Catholic Academy and Frederick Nattrass Primary Academy. The Secretary of State told me in her letter that they may have the dodgy concrete and that it could take weeks to survey them, but Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council says that no schools in the borough are affected and all remain open. How can school leaders reassure parents and the children themselves that they are safe in school when there is such conflicting information, and who is right?
There should not be conflicting information. The “Dear colleague” letter will be right, because that school will have an assigned caseworker. That is a school that the hon. Gentleman thinks will be surveyed, so it is not one that has been identified so far—
In the face of changing evidence, the cautious approach is clearly the right one, but, as has been acknowledged, that leads many pupils, including some at Waddesdon School in my constituency, back into receiving online learning rather than the face-to-face classroom learning that they deserve, which, equally, has a knock-on impact on a small number of children when it comes to safeguarding.
Over the weekend and today, I have been in close contact with headteacher Matthew Abbott and his team at Waddesdon School, and so far, as of their call at 2 pm, they have not been offered direct assistance in getting temporary classrooms. Rather, they have been given the impression that they are to be left to their own devices in procuring their own under the usual public sector procurement rules, which are very onerous when it comes to renting things such as village halls or the Methodist church. Will my right hon. Friend intervene to ensure that Waddesdon School does get support on temporary classrooms, or, if it is left to its own devices, that the public sector procurement rules are made more lax when it comes to getting those facilities?
I fear that the Secretary of State will rue her boasts about her good understanding as a hostage to fortune in what is going on today. Late on Friday evening, she wrote to me to say that Walthamstow School for Girls was being surveyed for suspected RAAC. That was a source of deep frustration to my local authority, which, when it saw that there were national incidents, spent its own money surveying every school in our borough and then paid for the remedial works. It has told the Department for Education about that not once, not twice, but three times. When there is this little grip on what is going on, how can any parent, pupil or school staff member have any confidence? If the Secretary of State wants to know why people are laughing rather than saying that she is doing a good job, she needs to look in the mirror.
I will take the hon. Lady’s advice and look in the mirror later. It is the responsible body’s job. If it has already gone ahead—as per the warnings we issued in 2018; we told everybody what they needed to do—I am delighted that it got on and did that work.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the hotline that she set up. I am pleased to say that it has informed my office that no RAAC has been found in my constituency, but I welcome the work she has done to keep children safe where it has been found. The Sir William Robertson Academy in my constituency does not have RAAC, but it does have other structural issues and is in the school rebuilding programme. The Chancellor has said that the money required to repair the concrete will be available. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is new money, and that the rebuild of Sir William Robertson Academy will still go ahead?
I received an email from the Secretary of State at 7.15 pm on Friday, the weekend before schools were due to go back, advising that a school in my constituency might be affected, so the truth is that the Secretary of State does not even know. Can she advise when parents will know whether or not their children are safe at school, because this is not good enough, is it?
They are safe in school. When I say that a school might be affected, that means it has been identified as containing suspected RAAC from the questionnaire that the responsible body has sent back. Those are the ones we will be doing the surveys on in the next two weeks. As I say, usually two thirds of them are not affected, but it sounds to me like the hon. Gentleman’s school is in that category, and we will be getting to it in the next two weeks.
When the issue of RAAC across the whole public estate was raised, I asked the Department what estimate it had made of the implications of its policies on the use of that material. On 25 July, I was told:
“It is the responsibility of those who run schools and who work with their schools day to day to manage the safety and maintenance of their buildings…The Department provides support on a case by case basis if it is alerted to a serious safety issue which responsible bodies cannot manage independently.”
Can the Secretary of State tell me who the responsible body was before this issue was brought to her attention? Was it the headteacher and the governing body, the local authority or the Department for Education?
The responsible bodies are typically the local authority or the multi-academy trust, but it is fair to say that we have recently changed our approach to become more directly involved, to make sure we help schools and responsible bodies to move quickly on this issue.
I put on record my thanks to Hornsey School for Girls and the local authority, which do have a plan for students to return safely to school. My question is whether the money that was intended for the neighbouring schools—Fortismere, which is riddled with asbestos, and Highgate Wood School, which is desperate for a new sports hall as its current one is crumbling and Dickensian—will be used for Hornsey School for Girls? Is one part of the budget just going to be raided so that it can prop up a failing Government, a failing education service and a failing Education Department?
Of course, education is devolved in Wales, but as the Secretary of State has rightly said, this is not a time for political point scoring, nor is it really a time for jurisdictional squabbling. Given that this issue predates devolution by several decades, will she confirm that, should the situation arise in Wales, any remedial funding required to repair the buildings will still be provided by the UK Government?
As the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Roberts) has just said, the schools that are suffering from RAAC were built before devolution and the advent of the Welsh Government and have been inspected properly by the local authority. The Secretary of State has said to the Welsh Education Minister,
“I stand ready to support you”,
yet the Chancellor has said that there is no new money. Might not the people of Wales, and the people of Holyhead and Menai Bridge in particular, feel her words as an empty political gesture?
The Secretary of State has said on several occasions that she and her Department are prioritising pupils still accessing face-to-face learning. As that is the case, when she publishes her definitive list on Thursday, will she also publish an estimate of the number of pupils who are not able to access face-to-face learning, and will she commit to the House that she will update that estimate on an ongoing basis?
I cannot promise my right hon. Friend that that information will be contained in what is published this week—which is more likely to be about the schools and the mitigations that are in place—but we will then put together the information on pupils who are learning face to face and those who are learning remotely, and we will update that regularly.
The Secretary of State will know that people go into teaching because they have a passion for educating young people and giving them a brighter future. They do not go into teaching to become building managers, and given that over the past 13 years lots of caretakers and school building managers have been cut because of school budget cuts, what confidence does she have that the information she is getting from these questionnaires is accurate?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to publish the list of impacted schools as soon as possible. She is urging responsible bodies that have not responded to the questionnaires to fill them in and return them, and she said that 5% had not done so. Could we not make it a statutory requirement for responsible bodies to return those questionnaires, and will she think about publishing a list of those responsible bodies that have not done so?
I spoke with the chief exec of a local trust earlier today, and that trust’s top priority is how it is going to fund this work. I was worried to hear the words “reasonable costs” from the Secretary of State just now. Can she confirm that a list of what is considered reasonable costs will be published as soon as possible, and would that include heating, for example? Clearly, heating a portacabin over winter is going to be much more costly than heating a well-insulated classroom.
Actually, the portacabins of today are very well insulated, but I would advise the hon. Lady that any particular case should be referred to the Department. The school can come directly to the Department with its revenue requests, and we will look at each one on an individual basis.
Last year, it was announced that Wales High School, one of the largest secondary schools in Rother Valley, was part of the school rebuilding programme, with an investment of tens of millions of pounds to improve conditions for children. Does the Secretary of State agree that this Government have invested in rebuilding our schools, so that all of our children across the country have a better standard of education?
How many of the schools affected are academy schools? Are any of them free schools or stand-alone academies? For those schools that are not directly accountable to the Department for Education, what support are the Government giving to local authorities and diocesan authorities? In cases such as that of the school affected in my constituency, it is the Church of England that is on the frontline, so it needs extra help as well.
If an expert in concrete advises that a building might collapse, it is an obvious call to say that children should not be taught in it, so the Secretary of State was absolutely right to make the decision she made last week. When it comes to ensuring timely and accurate information for local authorities and local representatives, how does she propose to make sure that local councils and local diocesan boards of education are kept fully updated, particularly as the results of surveys come forward?
We intend to publish management information. As I say, the list that will be published this week will have the initial information about mitigations. We will publish more management information probably from the following week, and then we will regularly update it as cases move on and move off.
St James Catholic Primary School in my constituency had critical RAAC identified in June. Despite what the Secretary of State told the media this morning, this has not been immediately fixed, and the school is now closed. Ministers and the DFE guidance have been contradictory on funding temporary costs, and the school has been told to fund travel and temporary arrangements itself. This is not acceptable. Can she confirm a timetable for works to make schools safe, and that all costs will be fully funded? Finally, she made it clear earlier today that she does not consider this situation to be her fault or her responsibility, so maybe she can tell us who she thinks has been “sat on their arses”?
I made the point to a journalist earlier— an off-the-cuff remark after the interview had finished—but I was responding to the fact that, in effect, the journalist had interviewed me in a way that suggested everything my fault; saying everything in 1994 was my fault, when I was working elsewhere. I pointed this out to the journalist, off the cuff—[Interruption.] No, I am not thin-skinned at all. It was something I said off the cuff.
On that school, which is a much more serious issue, some of the schools on the critical list were closed if they had a large degree of RAAC. Those children should be being accommodated, but if they are not and there is no plan to do so, the Department for Education will be paying for the mitigations that will be put in place.
May I offer some reassurance to the House and to parents in Nottinghamshire? The county council has been working with the Department and schools for many months to get surveys in place to make sure we have an accurate picture of our school estate. As a result of that work, for which I am very grateful, the sum total of disruption in Nottinghamshire this week is the return of one primary school being delayed by a couple of days. That is a good result in the circumstances of this late change of guidance, so I am really grateful for that work and the support of the DFE.
There will no doubt be a massive run on the procurement of temporary buildings in the coming days and weeks, but there will also be existing temporary buildings on school estates that are underused or unused. Academy trusts will not naturally talk to each other about that, so would the Department consider helping to ensure that existing buildings end up in the most appropriate places at the right time?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and also for all the work that he and his council have done—they have been exemplary in getting on top of this issue. On temporary buildings, I am very happy to have a further discussion. At the moment we have three suppliers and a lot of stock, and we are getting ready to enable that to be used. If there is underused stock elsewhere, we will be happy to consider that.
In 2016, the Levelling Up Secretary admitted that his 2010 ditching of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme was one of his worst mistakes. In 2011, a High Court judge said that the cancellation of the programme amounted to an abuse of power. Despite years of warnings, the Government have done very little to ensure that our public buildings are safe. Is the Secretary of State ashamed of this record, and will she apologise to taxpayers, who want to know why they have to pay so much for so little?
Absolutely not, and I would just like to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Priority School Building programme schools were one third cheaper per square metre than those built under Building Schools for the Future, and that is a fact from the National Audit Office in 2017.
A new and much-needed special educational needs and disability free school for the East Riding was announced in March 2023. Can the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no delay in the building of this free school, and that she will not be following the advice of the former Department for Education permanent secretary who said that free school programmes should be “second to safety” and therefore at risk?
I will look at the hon. Lady’s free special school, but we announced seven new free special schools in the summer holidays. This is very much part of our building of more places for special educational needs, which we know are badly needed in many constituencies.
I wish to impress upon the Secretary of State the fact that repairs must not come from current education budgets, since in Scotland these budgets are already reeling from Labour’s appalling private finance initiative legacy, which sold out the taxpayer. Can she offer me an assurance that the UK Government will provide all necessary additional financial support to all affected schools in Scotland, such as the PE block in Ardrossan Academy in my constituency? While she is weighing up the funding issue, can I ask her to bear in mind that, in the last financial year, Scotland’s capital budget was cut by £185 million in the face of soaring inflation?
I do sympathise with the hon. Lady. The PFI deals that were put in place all over the country, and which still blight the public sector today, are a hangover legacy of the last time Labour was in power. There is a very good reason why we should not trust it with our public services again.
I have two schools that are affected: St Bede’s in my own constituency; and St Leonard’s in the City of Durham constituency, to which a lot of pupils travel from my constituency and which has been closed. Parents I was speaking to over the weekend are both concerned about their education, and frustrated and angry, frankly, at the way the Government have dealt with this.
The Secretary of State said in her statement that her Department had been working all weekend. I spoke to one of her civil servants this morning—a very nice gentleman, I have to say—and he told me nothing, frankly, because he had nothing to tell me. I also spoke to the head of St Bede’s school this morning, who made sterling efforts on Friday to try to get alternative provision in community centres and other buildings in the area, only to be told that the Department has to sign these things off. It is chaos, the way this is being dealt with in County Durham.
Can I just say something about St Leonard’s? If the funding earmarked for the rebuilding of St Leonard’s had gone through and not been stopped by this Government, who instead made the ideological decision in 2011 to bring a free school to the City of Durham, which then closed three years later, costing £4 million, that £4 million could have been spent on education in Durham.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but just so that he is aware, and actually so that all Members are aware, this was announced on Thursday and today is Monday. In that time, we have identified the buildings, we have got the portacabins, we have written to everybody—
We have got the contracts for the portacabins. In a few days, we have actually stood up a helpline system and a caseworker system. I think the schools, working with the caseworker, will be getting all the mitigations in place, but it is a policy that was announced last Thursday.
What happened last Friday was an absolute disgrace. My constituents were thrown into disarray when St Leonard’s school had to close. Is the Secretary of State aware of the difficulty and distress this has caused? Childcare and work had to be rearranged, all at the last minute and all against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis, so what support will be offered to those vulnerable pupils and families, especially those on free school meals? Will there be a promise of financial support for repairs to the school, and when can the school expect a timescale to make the school safe? I must say that the local authority and the Department for Education have been pretty useless, and I want to put on record my thanks to Durham University, which is stepping up and trying to be as proactive as it can to help solve this situation.
Of course, for parents and for children this was very difficult. I have said that if I could have done it any other way, I would have done so. But faced with the information I had, I thought that was the best thing to do to keep children safe in our schools. I know the timing was very difficult. On the repairs, yes, I can assure the hon. Lady that there will be support, first, to mitigate whatever the situation is at St Leonard’s, and then in future when we look at whether it is refurbished or repaired.
Thousands of parents will be concerned, at the start of a school term, at their children once again being locked out of school and not getting face-to-face teaching, because they know the consequences of this policy. We saw that during covid, when schools were closed down, and we are still living with the consequences for educational achievement, the disproportional impact on the poor, long-term school absence, mental health problems and so on. I hope this is not going to be the default position of the Department for Education every time it identifies risk in a school. Could the Secretary of State tell us what discussions she has had with Northern Ireland officials, whether a number of schools have been identified in Northern Ireland and whether the approach in Northern Ireland is going to be that if the schools are identified, then they will be closed?
We have written to Northern Ireland officials and offered support. It is absolutely our priority to minimise remote learning as much as possible. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we still see the impact on our children today. For the critical 52 schools that were mitigated, remote learning was needed for, on average, six days, but we are trying to minimise that as much as possible.
I have 40 schools in my constituency, which is one of the poorest in the UK; they simply cannot afford another crisis. They have faced austerity, coronavirus, energy bills and strikes. What support can be offered to schools and parents in Erdington who will be affected by this? Also, we have talked about other public buildings, so how will the right hon. Lady work to ensure that what has been learned from this will be passed on to other areas so that the same mistakes are not made again?
If there are schools in the hon. Lady’s area, they will have been identified and we will be working with a caseworker to mitigate those as soon as possible; if there are suspected schools, we will be working to ensure that we survey them as soon as possible. On the point about the wider public realm, schools are obviously quite specific as there are many buildings—64,000 blocks—and most of them do not have an estate manager, so they are managed in different ways, but every Department has their own programme.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was waiting for other hon. Members to hop in ahead of me, but there we are.
I thank the Secretary of State for the answers she has given. In her introduction, she referred to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, because there are issues in Northern Ireland as well. I understand that education is a devolved matter, but according to media reports at the weekend, Saintfield High School in my constituency is having some of the repair work done. What discussions have taken place in Cabinet to ensure that schools in Northern Ireland have the help and assistance they need to make safe their buildings? The restricted budget must take in the increased cost of these works in Northern Ireland due to the logistics of this very specialised work?
We have all listened carefully to what Ministers have been saying. The Prime Minister said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to blame him for failing to fully fund a programme to rebuild England’s schools when he was Chancellor. But is it not in fact the case that what was truly completely and utterly wrong, and what is completely and truly wrong, is for this Prime Minister and this Government to pursue an ideological fixation with austerity, which has caused the lives of children in this country to be put at critical risk?
I can give the hon. Gentleman some good news. We are going to be funding schools more than ever before: £60 billion a year, and the overall capital budget, as I have said, is £19 billion, and that is from the spending review in 2021, of which £7 billion is allocated to 2023-24. We have been building to continue at the same building rate of new schools for a long time.
At least four schools in my constituency have been affected by the RAAC issue. The Secretary of State will be aware that Willowbrook Mead Primary Academy had to close without notice, with children being taught online. The Secretary of State’s letter warning about the danger arrived after children and staff had been back in dangerous buildings in Leicester for three days because schools there reopened a week earlier than most—the start of the school term in Leicester was last week. What does she have to say to the parents, carers and guardians in my constituency whose vulnerable children were put at risk by the Government’s lack of prompt action, investment and care?
I am aware that, as the hon. Lady says, Leicester’s schools start a little earlier. However, the information on which we based our decision only really came forward at the end of August, so when we acted we had to act on new information, and that is what triggered the change. Of course, I am very sorry to parents and children because it has caused disruption to the start of their year, which was the last thing I wanted to do, but my priority is keeping them safe in school.