The DfE’s lack of information on schools is “shocking”, MPs say

MPs criticized the “shocking” lack of detail provided by ministers about the crumbling concrete crisis at schools as they warned of the “worrying” state of classroom buildings.

In a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), MPs said that “unacceptable numbers of pupils learn in poorly maintained or potentially unsafe buildings” in England.

They said school property had “deteriorated to the point of concern for 700,000 pupils in a school in need of major rebuilding or refurbishment”, a factor which was “ultimately limiting their educational attainment”.

The cross-party panel, in its report The Condition Of School Buildings published on Sunday, said the lack of key information provided by the Department for Education (DfE) about this particular crisis in schools was “shocking and disappointing”.

A significant percentage of children in this country learn in dilapidated or dangerous buildings — this is clearly beyond acceptable

Dame Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee

In August, days before the return from the summer holidays, the UK government told more than 100 schools, nurseries and colleges in England to close classrooms and other buildings containing autoclaved reinforced concrete (Raac).

The PAC said it was “extremely concerned” that Education Secretary Gillian Keegan's department “did not have a good enough understanding of the risks in school buildings to keep children and staff safe”.

The Commons committee said the DfE was unable to tell its inquiry how many investigations into Raac were outstanding, how many temporary classrooms had been provided to crisis-hit schools or when the issues with the specific type.

Its report recommends that the DfE speed up its program of special investigations where Raac is suspected and be clearer about the funding it will provide to managers for temporary mitigation measures.

Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said an “absolute disaster” with Raac was “avoided by sheer luck”.

The Labor MP said: “A significant proportion of children in this country learn in dilapidated or dangerous buildings.

“This is clearly beyond unacceptable, but overcoming the consequences of this short-term infrastructure planning deficit will not be easy.

“The Schools Regeneration Program was already struggling to stay on track and the DfE had no mechanism to direct funding to areas that need it most.

“It risks being blown further by concerns about Raats and many schools in immediate need of help will not get it as a result.

“The images of classroom ceilings collapsing onto empty school desks that have circulated in recent months are not just indictments of run-down school property.

“They are chilling reminders of utter disaster avoided by sheer luck.

“Given the poor condition of so many of these buildings, the Government's primary challenge now is to keep the safety of children and staff absolutely paramount.”

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Tories had “cut spending on the school estate” since 2010, issuing a “cumulative cut” of around £43 billion.

“The Raac crisis reveals the folly of allowing so much of the school property to fall into disrepair,” he said.

“However, the government has yet to commit to increased spending or a timetable for repairing schools with Raac.

“The DfE would like to give the impression that they are now acting swiftly to remedy the situation, but in reality they are still asleep at the wheel, now regularly missing their own deadlines for informing the public.

“In the Autumn Statement we must see significant new money to tackle a crisis in school buildings that has grown under this Government's watch.

“Our parents, children and members deserve better.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Union of Head Teachers, said: “I believe that almost three months after the government's belated, panicked response to the crisis in the Raac situation, schools and parents still cannot trust that ministers understand or have a plan to address the full range of risks posed by deteriorating school buildings.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We do not accept the panel's assessment – ​​the Government has taken swift action, in response to new evidence, to identify and support all schools with Raac to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers.

“We have collected questionnaire responses from all educational institutions in the affected areas. The vast majority do not have a Raac and of those that do, most provide face-to-face training with only a small handful providing some form of distance training for a short period of time.

“We are clear that we will do whatever it takes to remove Raac from the school and college. We are working closely with schools with Raac to ensure remedial work takes place and disruption to learning is minimised.”

“Our School Rebuilding Program continues to rebuild and renovate school buildings in the worst condition, with the first 400 projects being selected ahead of schedule.”