School leaders in England are worried about the government’s reduction of funding for school building refurbishment and repair. This comes at a time when the Department for Education has disclosed that there is a “critical – very likely” risk of buildings collapsing. The NASUWT union said that the DfE’s capital expenditure limits were cut by £400m this week. This is a significant drop from the £6.3bn allocated in last November’s autumn statement to £5.9bn.
There is longstanding concern over the safety of England’s school estate, with buildings from the 1960s and 1970s nearing the end of their structural life. Many of these buildings are riddled with asbestos and other dangerous materials. Patrick Roach, the NASUWT’s general secretary, called for greater investment in school buildings and said that the warnings of the risk of collapse are worrying. Schools have already reported increased revenue pressures as they have less available to spend on the upkeep of buildings.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, is concerned about the reduction in budget. The budget reduction appears to be the result of planned expenditure not being carried out and needs an explanation from the DfE. McCulloch is calling for everything possible to be done to improve the condition of the school estate given that there is an £11.4bn backlog of repairs and remedial work required, and that some school buildings are in danger of collapse. “It is a shameful state of affairs, and the government has failed to put anything like enough investment into the school estate,” McCulloch said.
A DfE spokesperson said that the government’s investment in the school estate remained unchanged after Wednesday’s budget. The NASUWT’s analysis was incorrect. “The change in budgetary control totals between the autumn statement and Wednesday’s budget document is a technical adjustment,” the spokesperson said.
Research published by the House of Commons library found that between 2009-10 and 2021-22, there has been a 50% reduction in real-term capital spending on England’s state school estate. At least 39 state schools were forced to close partly or entirely in the last three years because one or more buildings had been deemed unsafe. In January this year, a woman was seriously injured by a falling piece of cladding while waiting to collect her children at a primary school in Sheffield.
Freedom of information requests by ITV News have discovered that at least 68 schools have buildings constructed using a type of reinforced concrete, which is now regarded as liable to collapse without warning. Almost 1,500 schools built between the 1960s and 1980s, when the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete was commonly used, had not been checked to see if they were constructed using the dangerous material.
In 2018, a ceiling built using reinforced concrete of the same type as above collapsed at a primary school in Kent. This occurred on a weekend, when the school was empty, averting any injuries. The Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, Munira Wilson, emphasised that this is unacceptable and a display of shocking neglect by the Conservative government.
The DfE’s latest annual report highlighted school building safety as one of six key risks facing the department. The department has overseen this problem with a cross-departmental board of permanent secretaries.