Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 1 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 4:00, 1 February 2024

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lord Addington for initiating this debate.

I pay tribute to all the teachers, staff, governors and parents who have coped during this very difficult situation. Anybody who saw “Panorama” could not help but be shocked by the effect on schools and schooling. Pupils face misery, with governors and head teachers struggling to cope and make alternative arrangements. Some 227 schools are unable to deliver face-to-face teaching to all their students, with 23 schools having to implement mixed-age teaching. The impact on those schools, whether of temporary classrooms, being bussed miles away to safer schools, or hurriedly organised virtual learning, is immeasurable. The huge effect on mental health and academic performance, and a lack of social interaction, come on the heels of the same things happening during the pandemic.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned St Leonard’s, which is one of the best-performing schools in the north-east. It has concluded that school closures and mixed-teaching arrangements will have seriously affected pupils and their performance in exams, impacting their anxiety and academic performance. Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Head Teachers has said that we

“need a real sense of a clear plan not just to put short-term mitigation measures in place, but to properly repair or replace buildings so they are fit for purpose. Propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option in the medium or long term”.

It is very easy to get into a blame culture, which I am pleased to say we have not done, because it helps neither the schools nor, more importantly, the children and young people. However, we need a clear commitment from the Government that they have a clear plan that every affected school can have the provision of first-rate buildings. Yes, there will be short-term measures while replacements are planned and built, but it is the long term that we need to get right. The school of which I was deputy head had mobile classrooms that had been provided because there had been a bulge in the birth rate. We were told that we would have these mobile classrooms for just a few years. They were still there 20usb years later. Temporary solutions are, as it says on the jar, temporary; they cannot be there many years later. I hope the Minister will give a commitment that any mobile classrooms will be provided for the shortest of periods until permanent provision can be made.

I have three other things I want quickly to mention. First, I am sure the Minister will speak to Ofsted to ensure that any affected schools will not have the added pressures of an Ofsted inspection. Might she consider making that move?

Secondly, although I think the Minister shook her head, I very much agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that the academic performance of these young people will be affected in their all-important summer exams, whether they be GCSEs, T-levels or A-levels. There needs to be some consideration of how we can mitigate the effect that this disaster has had on them.

Thirdly, why not use this as an opportunity not just to replace what has happened, but to actually enhance the school buildings and make sure that pupils, for all the suffering they have had, get a much better provision? Let us use this as an opportunity.

Knowing the Minister, I am sure she will be anxious to do all she can. I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that we cannot just take existing funding which was planned to be spent and use that. We need to make sure that this is additional money, because it would be quite wrong that those schools that have been waiting for some considerable time, whether it be for an extension or a major repair or whatever, suddenly find that stopped while their money is used to deal with this particular issue. I hope this is new money we are talking about; perhaps the Minister could confirm that as well.