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Schools: RAAC

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 September.

“Mr Speaker, as I said in my Statement to the House on 4 September, this Government are supporting affected schools and colleges to minimise disruption to education. I want to thank the head teachers, staff, local authorities and trusts that continue to provide face-to-face education for their pupils.

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

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

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

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

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

My Lords, the number of schools known to be affected by the safety crisis is rising, but it is not just the number of schools affected by RAAC that matters: it is the lost learning, lost opportunity and disruption to pupils. Can the Minister confirm how many children’s education has been disrupted and how many of these are in their exam years? How will lost learning be made up for to ensure that children are not left behind?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has focused on exactly where the Government are focusing, namely face-to-face education. I take this opportunity to thank all the head teachers and school leaders who have worked tirelessly to make sure that children can, wherever possible, be in face-to-face education. As the noble Baroness knows, this morning we announced an updated list of schools: the number of confirmed cases of RAAC had risen from 147, reflecting the data as of 30 August, and what we published today, which reflects the data from 14 September, shows 174 schools. I am pleased to say that with the exception of one school, all children are either in full face-to-face education—in 148 settings—while 23 are in hybrid education, one is fully remote and one is a very new case which we are triaging at the moment.

In terms of lost learning, there is access to the Government’s national tutoring programme, and we will of course talk to schools and responsible bodies. There are disruptions to the school year; it is not exceptional, sadly, that children miss a few days’ learning but, happily for most of these children, it has been just a few days. If there are extended periods, we will look at that with the responsible bodies concerned.

The Minister may recall that one of the first acts of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education was to cancel Building Schools for the Future. I well remember the impact it had on the city where I live. Also, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—

The noble Baroness is right, to our regret. I have not been heckled before—it is quite impressive. Under the then Chancellor, there was a plan to build 200 new schools, but the funding for only 50 was provided. Parents are worried; how do we bring transparency to this issue and how do we reassure them?

Just to be clear on the Building Schools for the Future programme, there are schools today where we have found RAAC that would have been in that programme and were among those cancelled. There are also schools that got funding through it where we found RAAC, so it is not fair to say that Building Schools for the Future would have solved this problem. We are dealing with a number of cases that had funding through that programme which did not remove the RAAC and where we are now dealing with that.

The noble Lord is right that the department argued, as every department does, for as large as possible a settlement from the Treasury. We are very proud of our school rebuilding programme, but I also draw the House’s attention to the amount of capital that has been spent over the last 10 years both on condition funding and on building new school places. During this Administration, there has obviously been a bulge in pupil numbers which has led to around £2 billion a year, on average, being spent on building new places for pupils by either extending existing schools or building new ones. In the last spending review, the budget for condition funding—maintaining our schools—was increased by 28%.

My Lords, are there many leisure centres used by schoolchildren as part of the school curriculum that are impacted by RAAC?

I am not aware whether there are leisure centres. The decision that we took in relation to schools reflected a number of factors. One was, obviously, the safety of pupils being paramount. Secondly, there was the speed with which we believed we could remediate most cases and, thirdly, the capacity and capability in estate management within the education sector. I am not an expert on leisure centres, but I assume that many will have dedicated expertise or have access to it.

My Lords, can the Minister enlighten us as to whether the Government have looked at whether specialist classrooms have been taken out as a result of this, and what effect that will have on the curriculum? For instance, science labs would be an obvious example. Also, in the creative subjects, if you have lost a theatre or an arts room where you were doing ceramics, you cannot complete the course. If the Government are finding this out, what process do they have to try to get some of that information in and, if they cannot do that, what arrangements will they make for people taking those exams?

We have very good information on those issues. The noble Lord is right: it is extremely important that we establish that, and the Secretary of State was extremely clear in taking this decision that our operational response to support schools, which have been presented with a difficult decision at a difficult time in the school year, should be really well supported. For every school, we have a dedicated caseworker who co-ordinates all the strands of work that are going on to mitigate the RAAC. Then every school has a project director who is a technical expert; they will visit the school and work out with it the quickest mitigation plan. We have access to specialist classrooms and temporary classrooms for science. We have worked with the utility companies to ensure that the necessary energy, water and so on can be accessed, but there are some difficult cases. I am going on Monday to see a special school for children with profound disabilities. There are very significant requirements to make sure that those children also get access to the best education possible.

My Lords, RAAC was actually a popular building material in Europe and North America, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, yet those areas do not seem to have had the same kind of problems. The Financial Times quoted the head of engineering at the University of Alabama, who helped to bring the product to the US in the 1980s, as saying that there seemed to be

“specific issues in the UK … with design, production and construction”.

Clearly, we are going to see a large amount of new buildings coming into schools, while there have been systemic problems in the long-term past. Is the Minister confident that the buildings coming in to replace them will be adequate and reliable for the long term? What is the Government’s standard length of building life when constructing a new school?

As the noble Baroness says, there have been suggestions—I think they are no more than suggestions and that it is a hypothesis—that what I call the recipe, which is probably not a very technical term for its technical specifications, for the RAAC that was manufactured in this country was potentially slightly different to those in other countries or that the installation of it was. There are questions about whether the overlap at the ends of the planks has been sufficient in all cases, but I would stress that those are just hypotheses as to why we face these problems.

The other issue is, genuinely, that we have been extremely proactive. We have spent the last 18 months working with schools. We were made aware in 2018 of the first plank failing at a school. Guidance was produced at that time and it has been updated regularly since. We have engaged with every school—98.6% of responsible bodies and schools in the country—to understand whether they have RAAC in their buildings, how they are managing it and whether they were mitigating the risk. It is through that proactive work that we identified these cases. On the design and production standards, we have been working closely with our chief scientific adviser in the department, who in turn has been working across government with CSAs in other departments, to ensure that our research and understanding of this building material and others is as high quality as it can be.