1 September 2023

The estate we’re in – school closures over building safety could so easily have been avoided


Having run a school myself for five years, I know first hand that there’s never a good time to close a school at short notice.

Having to do so just before staff and students are due back for a new school year is pretty awful. And to have to do it because there is a risk that some of your buildings could collapse without notice makes everything even worse.

As I write this, the announcement that around 100 English schools may have to partially or fully close due to building safety concerns is the top story on every UK news website (apart from GB News).

I’ve had friends who don’t normally follow education stories message me about it, worrying that their kids’ school might be affected. Journalists are now trying to work out which are involved, and stories are starting to emerge about RAAC’s (a lightweight form of concrete) use in hospitals and other public sector buildings.

This is cut through.

I’ve got four daughters at three different schools, and friends working at institutions across the land, so I’ve a personal interest in the situation being dealt with quickly and effectively. I don’t want anyone at risk of serious harm as they go about their day. Safety has to be put first.

But I do think we need to calm down and give the government and the sector some space to get on top of things here, and not scare people unnecessarily.

Firstly, as that’s the only way they’ll be able to get on with sorting things out properly – they need to be focused on the job at hand and not waste time on media handling or rumours. And secondly it could end up distracting from the bigger picture here – the poor state of much of the public sector’s estate.

Let’s look at the situation in education. Until recently, across the UK schools and colleges were the responsibility of councils – and other than academies in England, they still are.

In England, largely as a result of the academisation of schools since 2010, the DfE has developed an extensive register of the sector’s estate. For the first time, central government has a reasonably good idea of what buildings there are, when and how they were constructed, and the state they’re in. This means that they know that, for instance, 31% of buildings were built after 2001, and a big chunk are pre-war – and so won’t contain any RAAC at all as it wasn’t used at those times.

And having asked schools to do a survey on the issue, they’ve managed to get a sense of how many schools have RAAC – around 160 schools, out of more than 22,000.

So the scale of the problem is thankfully pretty small.

Don’t get me wrong – the impact in those schools of mitigating things now is huge. But fortunately it’s affecting a relatively small proportion. 

And because it’s such small numbers, the DfE can rightly put a lot of support in place. There will be a government team allocated to each school to make sure they put the right mitigations in place, and are helped and funded along the way.

Some are calling for a list of all affected schools to be published, but I don’t think that would be the right thing to do right now. It’s best that families hear about things from the school directly and not the media. And the schools themselves will be busy figuring out what to do, and a public list means they’ll end up having to deal with worried parents and the media before they can explain what the exact situation is and how it’s being addressed.

Unsurprisingly, opposition parties are painting this as another Tory failure. I can understand why they’d do this. However, the Conservatives aren’t in government in Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland, and the administrations there only very recently started to survey for RAAC, so have next-to-no idea as to what the situation is in their schools. This is a general problem – not a Conservative one.

And I worry that to make the issue party political will distract people from a bigger picture: the poor state of much of the public sector estate overall. There have been many shiny new schools’n’hospitals and so on in recent decades, but because of Treasury spending rules under Labour and Conservatives, capital spending – money for buildings, roads, infrastructure and so on – has been restrained, even as revenue for day-to-day spending reached ever greater heights.

The capital that was made available was often wasted on useless buildings and projects that failed to deliver. Labour’s ‘Building Schools of the Future’ programme was a classic example of this, delivering expensive schools that were poorly designed and difficult to maintain.

Another Tory education success has been the way they transformed the central procurement of school building and refurbishment, such that it was cheaper, quicker and better. No one ever heard about this as there were too few projects to make an impact, and the focus was on more money for school budgets.

Indeed, the push for more and more revenue funding in schools is one of the reasons why capital funding has been so low. The success of the ‘School Cuts’ campaign during the 2017 General Election convinced Theresa May that schools budgets needed boosting – and on this occasion much of the extra cash came from slashing the schools capital pot.

Given where we are, what will probably happen now are expensive mitigations in RAAC affected schools, and then a flurry of stories in the media covering RAAC in the NHS and elsewhere, which will lead to demands for further mitigations. And less money left to spend on more general longer term solutions.

It’s another example of how UK public spending is so often penny wise and pound foolish. Yes, the financial crisis, productivity collapse, Covid and Ukraine have put finances under strain. But there has to be a better way to balance spending for today and the long run – and avoid situations like the one now where thousands of kids face even more disruption to their learning that could have been avoided.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.