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Hundreds of Thousands of Pupils at Schools in Danger of Imminent Collapse Without Warning

A new report by the National Audit Office sounds the alarm on the state of school buildings requiring major refurbishment

Children in a UK classroom. Photo: David Bagnall/Alamy

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Some 700,00 children are being educated in school buildings “requiring major rebuilding or refurbishment” which can “negatively impact pupil attainment and teacher retention” – including nearly 600 schools in danger of imminently collapsing without warning, a new report has revealed.

The National Audit Office has found that 572 schools built between the 1950s and mid-1990s are in danger of imminent collapse without warning because they were built using aerated concrete which is prone to failure. The Department for Education has inspected 196 of them and found that 65 need immediate work. It will allocate money to tackle these. 

Another 3,600 schools have asbestos which could be starting to deteriorate and the ministry was going to inspect 200 of them, but work has not started on this.

In total, 24,000 school buildings – one-third of all schools – are past their initial design life and it would cost the taxpayer £11.4 billion to fix them. The department estimated that it needed £5.3 billion a year to do this – and ideally £7 billion a year to maintain the entire state school estate in good order.

The Treasury has agreed that the department could have £3.1 billion a year. Between 2016 and last year, it was spending £2.3 billion a year while buildings were deteriorating.

The distribution of schools needing urgent work varies widely across England although there is no area where none of the buildings need updating. 

The north of England – with the exception of Newcastle and Teesside – is more badly affected than the south – suggesting that the ‘levelling up’ promised by Boris Johnson’s Government in the ‘Red Wall’ seats has yet to have any impact.

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The worst eight authorities affected are: Rutland, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Dudley, Wolverhampton, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and the Isles of Scilly. Other rural areas affected include Rishi Sunak’s constituency in Yorkshire and Hertfordshire, West Berkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk.  The least affected – with the exception of Cornwall – is the west of England.

A second report released today by the National Audit Office also reveals that the Department for Education has done little or nothing to prepare to fight climate change or decarbonise schools.

Some 10,000 schools are prone to flooding should climate change worsen. The report reveals that the department does not have a clear national picture of the sustainability of schools – even though it is meant to meet a 75% reduction in emissions from school buildings by 2037.

There are currently only six zero-emission schools in England, with another 28 under construction. Under the school rebuilding programme, only 2% of the estate’s buildings will be net-zero by 2030.

 A schools resilience programme designed to combat the effects of climate change has had its budget slashed from £90 million to £4.6 million.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO said: “At present, 700,000 pupils are learning in schools requiring major rebuilding or refurbishment. DfE has, since 2021, assessed the risk of school building failure or collapse as critical and very likely, but it has not been able to reduce this risk. More widely, it has an ambitious strategy for decarbonising the education estate but no plan for how it will achieve this or how much it is likely to cost.”

Conservative MP Philip Dunne, chair of the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, said the NAO’s report is “raising alarm bells on the condition of many school buildings”.

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“While the environmental sustainability of school buildings appears to have been subordinated to the pressing need to make schools safe, there is now a unique opportunity to improve school sustainability at the same time as making critical remedial works,” he added.

Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said that “worryingly, the Government does not know how many schools may be unsafe” and “parents need reassurance that the department knows where, when and how any risks to their children will be remedied”.

A Department for Education spokesperson told Byline Times: “Nothing is more important than the safety of pupils and teachers, which is why we have been significantly investing in transforming schools up and down the country .

“We are investing in 500 projects for new and refurbished school buildings through our School Rebuilding Programme. On top of this, we have allocated over £15 billion since 2015 for keeping schools safe and operational, including £1.8 billion committed for 2023-24.

“It is the responsibility of those who run our schools – academy trusts, local authorities, and voluntary-aided school bodies – who speak to their schools’ day to day to manage the maintenance of their schools and to alert us if there is a concern with a building. We will always provide support on a case-by-case basis if we are alerted to a serious safety issue by these responsible bodies.”

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