Many school buildings in England are now in such disrepair that they pose a ‘risk to life’, according to internal government documents leaked to the Observer.
Emails sent by senior civil servants working for Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi in Downing Street show they have sounded the alarm twice in the past six weeks.
Officials are urgently calling on the Treasury to make additional billions available to increase the number of school reconstruction projects from 50 a year to more than 300.
As part of a Department for Education (DfE) No 10 weekly update on March 30, senior officials cite the problem of the deterioration of school buildings as ‘risks and opportunities ahead’ .
They say, “School buildings: Deteriorating condition of school grounds continues to be a risk, with steady state funding for fiscal year [financial year] 2022-23, some sites are a risk to life, too many expensive and energy-consuming repairs rather than rebuilding, and rebuilding demand x3 supply.
The same email then goes on to make it clear how the DfE is battling with the Treasury over £13billion, now available following recent higher education reforms, to spend on school repairs.
“The DfE continues to commit HMT to extending the school reconstruction program by a similar amount as set out in the spending review negotiations. This includes increasing the number of School Reconstruction Program projects per year from 50 to over 300.”
On April 4, officials sounded the alarm again under the same “risks and opportunities” heading and repeated the warning that some school sites are “at risk to life”. The second email adds: “We would like to increase the scale of the school’s reconstruction.”
The revelations will put enormous pressure on No 10 and the Treasury to divert additional billions to keep schools and pupils safe, at a time when they are already facing calls to help millions of low-income people to weather the cost of living crisis. .
On Saturday, Kevin Courtney, co-general secretary of the National Education Union, blamed years of Conservative capital spending cuts to schools and said current problems ranged from unsafe roofs to asbestos.
He said: “All children deserve to learn in high quality, safe and comfortable buildings. But in 2022-23 capital funding is £1.9billion a year lower in real terms than it was in the last years of the Labor government. If the government had not cut Labour’s school reconstruction programme, an additional £27 billion would have been spent on school and university buildings. So while any money spent on school buildings is welcome, the scale must be judged against what has been cut, which is 50 times greater.
“The challenges ahead are enormous. And whether it’s potentially dangerous roofing, energy-efficient renovations and to help meet climate obligations, or basic repairs, the challenge is all the greater because asbestos is present in many school buildings. The government needs to be much more ambitious and urgently tackle these issues strategically.
An official briefing in the House of Commons Library dated March this year titled ‘School Building and Capital Funding’ confirms huge capital spending cuts since the Tories came to power in 2010.
It says: “Spending generally followed a downward trend between 2009-10 and 2013-14 and in the years since spending has fluctuated… Overall, between 2009-10 and 2021-22, spending capital decreased by 25% in cash terms and 29% after adjusting for inflation (2021-22 prices).
In a statement to the Commons in July 2011, then Education Secretary Michael Gove said the design of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future program “was not as effective as it could have been.” be “.
Gove said it does not prioritize schools in the worst condition and does not buy new buildings at the best possible price. In its place, Gove created the Priority School Building Scheme, which it said would be available to “all schools – academies, community schools and voluntary aided schools – and local authorities responsible for the maintenance of a number of schools”. This, he said, would solve the problems and be available to schools that “need it the most”.
But the leaked documents confirm a gradual deterioration over the next 11 years, despite repeated warnings that a crisis was approaching.
MP Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, said: ‘The Conservatives have failed a generation of children by cutting investment in our schools during their 12 years in office.
“Their negligence is now putting lives at risk, but the Secretary of State still cannot convince the Chancellor to act. Labor would build a Britain where children come first, but the Tories are standing on the sidelines as English schools crumble.
In 2019 the Guardian reported that more than one in six schools in England still needed urgent repairs and cited warnings about schools “collapsing around teachers and pupils”. According to official data at the time, 17% (3,731) of schools had buildings with “features”, such as a roof, wall or window, requiring immediate action.
Of the 21,796 schools for which information was released, 1,313 had items that received the worst possible condition, grade D, defined as “life has expired and/or serious risk of imminent failure”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The safety of pupils and staff is paramount. We have one of the largest and most comprehensive survey programs in Europe, enabling us to assess and manage risks in our buildings. We prioritize buildings that pose a health and safety risk and have invested £11.3 billion since 2015 to improve the condition of school buildings and facilities. In addition, our new school reconstruction program will transform the learning environment of 500 schools over the next decade.