Safety of School Buildings

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 6 September 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee, Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 4:39, 6 September 2023

Unlike the Conservative Government in England, the Welsh Government are investing in rebuilding schools, which is why they face a different situation from the one we face. Today we are looking at history and for transparency, not for a geography lesson.

Parents and the wider public deserve to know how and why decisions were taken, such as why the number of schools that the Government are planning to rebuild each year has been cut to just 50. The Prime Minister has been looking for plaudits, but under his leadership, the Treasury almost halved the money going into school building. This week we heard the former permanent secretary say that he was shocked when the number of schools that the Government planned to rebuild each year was not increased to 300, but cut. That is what officials said was needed to keep children safe; not thriving—we are not talking about bells and whistles—but just safe.

The Prime Minister, as Chancellor, said no to the request to rebuild our schools and make them safe, just as he turned down a request to deliver a proper recovery programme for the children recovering from the pandemic. While donating to American colleges, he has condemned children in England to crumbling buildings and, now, another round of learning from home.

Conservative Members have a choice today. They can vote with us to be honest with parents, pupils and staff about the decisions the Prime Minister took and the consequences for our children, or they can stay in their “not me, guv” ranks and vote to keep parents in the dark yet again. The Prime Minister promised to lead a Government of integrity and accountability, so today, at least, they have an opportunity to make that a reality.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) all made incredibly powerful speeches about the importance of this issue to the children, parents and school staff in their areas. Many Conservative Members also highlighted the challenge the issue has posed in their constituencies, yet all sought to deflect the blame. That is why this debate is about taking responsibility. The speeches from my hon. Friends set out very clearly why this matters to the parents and in particular the children in our constituencies who are affected by it.

We are, of course, pleased that the Government finally published the list of schools this morning, but are they sure it is accurate? Just today we are hearing reports that schools the Secretary of State told to—if I am allowed to say it—get off their arses have in fact returned their RAAC surveys and, in some cases, have gone ahead and remedied the RAAC themselves in the absence of any support from the Government. Other schools are emerging that are not on the list but have been identified as having RAAC. There is concern, and it explains why the Secretary of State has been so reluctant to release the list. There seems to be a lot of chaos in Government, not only in the lead-up to this situation but in handling it at this stage.

I have no doubt—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has literally just walked in. I am not sure what his contribution is at this stage, but I will come on to him in a moment. I have no doubt that when the Minister of State stands up, he will, like the Secretary of State, want to talk about Labour’s record on education, so I thought I would get ahead of him. Labour in government reduced class sizes by recruiting thousands of new teachers and introduced teaching assistants to raise standards for all our children. We increased participation in post-16 education and saw record numbers progressing to university. And we had a school rebuilding programme.

Building Schools for the Future set out a pathway to rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England, backed up by the primary capital programme to invest in the maintenance and repair of primary schools across the country. The last Labour Government set out a plan to transform our country’s school estate, leading to improvements in standards and behaviour and making schools a safe place for children to learn, because Labour knew then, as we know now, that children cannot get a first-class education in a second-class school.

It only took the current Levelling Up Secretary six years to admit that he regretted scrapping the Building Schools for the Future programme and cancelling over 700 school building projects, but it seems that the lessons he learned are not being passed on to his colleagues. It will therefore be for the next Labour Government to make our school estate one to be proud of once more and to make sure that every child in every corner of the country can go to an excellent local school.

I expect the Minister will also quote from the James review and tell the House about the surveys of school buildings that his Government have undertaken. When he does, perhaps he could clarify this. On 11 January this year, the Minister responded to a written question from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, stating that their surveys are

“visual inspections only, and do not assess the overall structural integrity of a building.”

Two days later, in response to another question from my hon. Friend, he repeated that, saying that the condition data collection is “not a safety survey”. However, less than a month later, on 7 February, he said that the survey provides a “robust evidence base” for targeting capital funding. It would be helpful if the Minister explained how both those statements can be true at the same time, and how a survey can provide a “robust evidence base” if it is not assessing safety or structural integrity. What this looks like to me is yet more chaos and contradiction from the Government.

It is becoming clearer by the day that 13 years of Conservative government have failed our children. For our school estate, they have been 13 years of cut-price sticking- plaster solutions and inefficient repairs, when green rebuilds and long-term plans were required. We have seen ageing buildings, many of which were built decades if not more than a century ago, with unmet repairs, cracked walls, asbestos, buckets placed in classrooms catching leaks and crumbling roofs. The Government’s complacency on this is unforgivable, but it is clear that they are not going to own up voluntarily to the scale of this problem or their failure.

Whether the issue is lockdown parties, speeding tickets, Government contracts or school buildings, this Government are incapable of transparency. That is why the House must force them to be transparent and to be honest with parents about the choices they made to leave the school estate crumbling around our children, because it is parents, children and school staff whose lives could be at risk—those are not my words, but the words of senior officials in the Department for Education. Last year, the Government invited bids from schools for building replacements or repairs. More than 1,000 schools applied, yet the Prime Minister proudly told us that he planned to rebuild just 500 over the next decade.

We are already seeing the impact of these short-sighted decisions on our school estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam has told the House that a parent in her constituency was injured when a piece of cladding fell on her. A recent freedom of information request from Schools Week found that a teacher was reportedly admitted to hospital after being hit by a falling ceiling tile at a school in Bradford. What could have happened if those events had occurred at a different time or place when there were more children in the classrooms does not bear thinking about.

Until the Government own up to their responsibility, it falls to the House to ensure that children go to schools that are safe, that teachers and staff are not put at risk, and that we are honest with the public about the decisions that have been made. For more than a decade, Conservative Governments have neglected that duty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said in her opening speech, the defining image of 13 years of Tory government will be children cowering under the steel supports that stop the ceiling falling down. I say to the Government, “Come clean, own up, and support our motion today.”