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Schools: Catering Facilities and RAAC

Volume 833: debated on Monday 23 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what financial support they are providing to schools whose catering facilities have been affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.

My Lords, every school or college with confirmed RAAC will be assigned dedicated support from a caseworker, who will work with them to assess what support is needed and implement mitigation plans that are bespoke for their circumstances. The Government are funding emergency mitigations and reasonable revenue costs for these settings. This could include establishing a temporary kitchen, help to access catering facilities on another site or supporting deliveries of food prepared elsewhere.

My Lords, the Minister for Schools in another place reiterated that the Government’s commitment is absolute to tackling health inequalities in education settings, including reference to free school meals. Does the Minister agree that, as providing free school meals is vital to many families and a decent meal at lunchtime is necessary for all, extra funds need to be found to restore catering facilities where they have been lost to RAAC? I declare an interest because my granddaughter, while still enjoying face-to-face education, is in a school that has lost its kitchen, dining hall, gym, science labs and assembly hall thanks to the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness’s granddaughter is having that disruption to her education. I would, however, stress that a number of schools with RAAC were part of Building Schools for the Future, so I do not think that that is necessarily the main or only reason for what is happening. To be absolutely clear, we are supporting schools in revenue terms if they need to bring in extra staff. For example, some schools have had to bring in extra catering staff and we are funding that. We are of course making sure that they can access all the facilities, including kitchens, which the noble Baroness referred to.

My Lords, while I welcome the commitment to free school meals made by the DfE in its guidance, I note that 214 schools are now known to be impacted by RAAC. How many of these 214 schools are now unable to provide catering facilities, and what action is being taken to ensure their continued provision of hot food?

Of the 214 schools the noble Earl referred to, 202 are providing full-time face-to-face education and 12 are in hybrid arrangements. In all cases, we work with the school to make sure it can offer pupils, particularly those eligible for free school meals, a meal. Not all of them will be having a hot meal—in some cases, they are having packed lunches as a temporary measure—but the critical thing is that children are back in face-to-face education.

My noble friend referred to the additional funding the Government were providing. Could she give the House an indication of the extent of that and whether further increases are contemplated?

I cannot give the House an exact figure today because we are working through every school’s exact needs with them, but I would obviously be delighted to report back to the House when we have greater clarity on that. All I can say is that, whether it is revenue funding—which might be for staff, IT equipment or renting local facilities—or capital funding, the Government will pay for it.

My Lords, can the Minister kindly give us an idea of the timing for all facilities to be clear of RAAC? I am particularly thinking of catering, bearing in mind the Minister’s comments about making sure that staff and students remain safe from such problems.

I cannot give the noble Lord an exact timeline because, as the House will have seen from the data we published on 19 October, we are identifying a number of additional schools with RAAC. Obviously, the clock starts for each one to address all its problems. But despite the increase in the number of schools identified as having RAAC, we have gone from about 14% of children receiving hybrid education—and a further 16% having to learn remotely or experiencing a delay to the start of term—to now only 6%. It is not a question of “only” for those children—for them, it is a huge deal—but no children are in remote education at the moment.

My Lords, things such as good catering and sports facilities are reckoned to help academic attainment, so will the fact that those facilities in these schools have been badly damaged be reflected in their status in league tables, for example?

Schools face different challenges every year, and I am not aware that there are plans to recalibrate the league tables as a result of this—I would be very surprised if that happened. But I reassure the noble Lord that, all around the country, not only the schools themselves but their neighbouring schools are doing everything to offer to share their facilities, and we are enormously grateful for that.

I appreciate that the Minister may need to give a written response to this, but how many children are currently being schooled online in temporary or non-classroom settings because of RAAC? Notwithstanding the Minister’s earlier response, how long do the Government estimate it will take to completely investigate all schools?

It is not so much that I cannot give an answer now or in writing, but rather that the arrangements schools have put in place change frequently, as the noble Baroness will recognise. For example, a school might be delivering classes in a leisure centre this week but will be back in its buildings next week. Our overarching efforts are to get children back to normal education as quickly as possible.

On league tables, will the department at least conduct some research on the impact of this issue on the children and their long-term future? Just as we have seen the devastating impact on children of Covid and being shut out of schools, surely it would be worth the Minister’s department focusing on and tracking through the young people affected.

We have data that tracks young people, through the LEO survey, and I can check whether we can do that for schools. While this is not in the spirit of the noble Lord’s question, which I completely recognise and agree with—that we want to make sure that these children are given every support to succeed—what I would say is that genuinely, every single case is different. There will be one school that can use two out of their five science labs and another that cannot use any of them, while a third has a neighbour that lends them all theirs, so each one will be different.

My Lords, one does not have to go very far in this city to see extensive public infrastructure works which, while no doubt useful, scarcely seem to be essential. What analysis is being made of infrastructure investment at national and local levels to ensure that funding is addressed in areas that are most in need, rather than those that are most useful?

Obviously, each department will look at the priorities for its own policy areas, and in my department’s case a big priority relates to replacing RAAC in schools that include it and making sure that our overall school infrastructure is resilient and safe for children. Clearly, the Treasury, among others, has a critical role in comparing proposals from different departments and making those long-term strategic plans.

My Lords, at times like this it is obviously natural for many people to look to government for a solution, but I wonder what conversations my noble friend’s department has had with private companies, local charities and civil society organisations, as well as, dare I say it, faith groups, which may be able to help at times like this.

I am aware that in individual areas, a lot of those conversations have been going on. We have certainly received a lot of correspondence in the department with offers of help, but I can think of both faith and non-faith trusts that have been using facilities offered by local community organisations.