The Department for Education (DfE) provides funding and support to those who manage the school estate, so that children can learn in safe and well-maintained buildings, maximising their chances of success. Given this, it is extremely concerning that DfE does not have a good enough understanding of safety risks across school buildings for it to fully quantify and mitigate these risks and keep children and staff in schools safe. This includes an understanding of how reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which may lead to a sudden building collapse, has been used alongside asbestos, which we have raised as a concern for several years.
Given how crucial it is to get safety matters right, it is shocking and disappointing that, at the time of our evidence session in September 2023, DfE could not provide basic information on, for example, how many specialist surveys to identify RAAC were outstanding, or how many temporary classrooms had been provided to schools affected by RAAC. Nor could it provide a clear and firm commitment on when RAAC issues would be addressed.
The emerging issues with RAAC add further weight to demonstrating the impact that short-term thinking and decision-making can have on long-term value for money. The school estate has deteriorated to the point where an alarming 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment, impacting their learning experiences and ultimately limiting their educational achievements. All pupils have an equal right to learn in safe and well-maintained buildings, but their chances of doing so are too often affected by factors such as their geographical location and the capability of those responsible for managing their school buildings.
It is encouraging to see that, alongside its annual maintenance and repair funding of £1.8 billion in 2022–23, DfE has packages of work to help address some of the most serious building issues, including a plan for refurbishment and rebuilding in 500 schools over 10 years. However, this work only touches the surface of problems across the school estate. DfE must do more to mitigate critical safety and value for money concerns, and then demonstrate that it has clear plans to address the scale of challenge and uncertainty it faces in the coming years.