Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 1 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Devolved Issues) 4:05, 1 February 2024

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this short debate on a most pressing issue affecting our most precious resource—our children and young people.

In the answer the Minister gave to me during Oral Questions last October on this subject, she told me that the Government’s

“overarching efforts are to get children back to normal education as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 23/10/23; col. 383]

However, the drip-drip of schools being added to the RAAC list is yet more evidence of chaos from this Government, which have no grip on the extent of crumbling school buildings. One of the defining images of 14 years of Conservative Government is children cowering under steel props to stop the roof falling in. What an unhappy metaphor.

Can the Minister say when a full list of schools affected will finally be available and how much her department expects this remedial work to cost? Parents, children and school staff need urgent reassurance and answers on the steps being taken to support schools, to ensure children can get back to their normal classrooms and to rebuild classrooms riddled with unsafe, crumbly concrete. In early December, the number of schools and colleges with RAAC stood at 231, when the Secretary of State announced that a deadline to remove RAAC from every school would be confirmed in the new year. Is the Minister able to confirm here what the deadline will be, and when will it be announced?

School leaders remain worried about the disruption to learning, with children taught in marquees, portable classrooms, sports halls or off-site. There is a further worry about specialist spaces, such as science labs, drama studios and design and technology rooms. There is a call, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans noted, for examined students to be given special consideration. As a former A-level examiner of some 27 years, I can attest to the disruption that displacement from specialist teaching spaces has on pupil learning. I urge the Government to engage with the examination boards to discuss what we call “mitigating circumstances” for those affected by this disruption.

As noted previously, parents are taking their children out of schools with dangerous concrete and sending them elsewhere. I will give just one example: 100 families have asked a council to move children from two Warwickshire schools affected by unsafe building materials. ASCL said that an unacceptable wait for mitigation works meant that parents were starting to

“lose confidence … and vote with their feet”.

Worryingly, however, RAAC is just one issue affecting schools in England. Some 700,000 children are being taught in unsafe or ageing buildings, according to a National Audit Office report last year. When will this downgrading of the school estate cease? When will real funding be put into making our schools fit for the present and for the future?

I am sure the Minister will expect me to note that, in Wales, we were able to continue with our school building and refurbishment programme over the past 14 years. In terms of RAAC, the situation in Wales was different from that in other parts of the UK, as many schools had been built before RAAC was in use. Since RAAC has stopped being used, we have had 140 new schools built in the first wave, and another 200 schools as part of the current wave of investment by the Welsh Government, in partnership with local government, which runs schools in Wales. This includes both capital maintenance of the existing school estate and a huge transformation programme building new schools and colleges.

In England, I believe there are currently 100 unallocated places on the list for the Government’s 10-year school rebuilding programme, and it is expected that they will be filled by the RAAC situation. The Secretary of State told Members of Parliament earlier this month that she anticipated that there would probably be more than 100 schools that need rebuilding. With schools across England in an urgent state of disrepair and with more than 1,200 originally being considered for this fund, experts are warning that other school building projects are likely to be hit due to the demand from RAAC-affected schools.

The National Audit Office reported that one of the biggest issues facing public buildings is the lack of knowledge of the state of disrepair. The Government have rejected a proposal to have a register of public holdings in a state of serious disrepair. I wonder why the Government are hesitant to have such a register. Last November, the Public Accounts Committee warned that

“the school estate has deteriorated to the point where 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment”.

It was shocked and disappointed by the lack of basic information from the DfE on the concrete crisis in schools.

I will end my contribution to this debate by echoing the words of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Meg Hillier, MP, who said:

“A significant proportion of children in this country are learning in dilapidated or unsafe buildings. This is clearly beyond unacceptable, but overcoming the consequences of this deficit of long-term infrastructure planning will not be easy. The School Rebuilding Programme was already struggling to stay on track, and DfE lacked a mechanism to direct funding to regions which need it most. It risks being blown further off course by concerns over RAAC, and many schools in dire need of help will not receive it as a result”.