Perpetual under investment in the school estate has left a crumbling legacy

By Hayley Dunn, ASCL Business Leadership Specialist

The government’s school rebuilding programme (SRP) will see 500 blocks or buildings being rebuilt and of course this is very welcome. However, the perpetual underinvestment in the school estate has left some children learning in crumbling legacy buildings with leaking roofs and inefficient heating systems that are costly to run, which is less than ideal in a world of rising energy prices. 

The schools in the next phase of the rebuilding programme will be required to meet higher sustainable building standards. As they should be. However, it is quite absurd that there is not a more ambitious plan to replace buildings that are, at best, unfit for purpose. A significant injection of capital investment alongside support for schools is a must in order to ensure the education sector can meet the government’s climate change target of being carbon net zero by 2050. 

It is good that new builds will be built to a better standard of energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions, essentially carbon net zero in operation. Nevertheless, we have a very long way to go to upgrade the whole of the existing estate. 

We have inequitable access when it comes to the quality and safety of learning environments. Most children and young people living in England learn in a traditional school environment but there are vast differences in the facilities available. Our young people want to tackle climate change and they deserve better. The physical environment matters.

What is the scale of the problem?
The Department for Education’s (DfE) Condition of School Buildings Survey in May 2021 (based on data from 2017 – 2019) found that it would cost £11.4 billion to repair or replace all defective elements in the school estate. 

The highest need area is electrics (needing £2.5 billion), followed by items such as boilers and pipework, and then external walls, windows, doors, and roofs (needing £1.5 billion). It is completely unacceptable that children and staff are working in learning environments that are not of a satisfactory condition, and not a conducive environment for education, a fundamental point that we have outlined in responses to government consultations.

Alongside the gap in capital funding to repair and replace the failing fabric of the school estate are the ongoing costs for routine maintenance, which are considerable. Schools are seeking more sustainable options and the invest-to-save model is the right approach, but you need to have the funds to invest.

The government has tried short-term, low-cost quick fixes, including CO2 monitors and air cleaning units, distributed at pace but with questionable success. They need to ensure that any new or revised policy requirements which will incur material levels of expenditure must be fully funded and not come from existing school budgets. This includes covering the cost of infrastructure changes, upgrades and replacement.

The government must know about these issues because the DfE asked for evidence in a recent weekly update from the Education and Skills Funding Agency, providing a form and asking where there are known significant structural issues with school estate buildings, that responsible bodies provide further information.

What is the definition of a structural issue?
You’ll have an understanding of what this means, however for clarity, the DfE has described a structural issue as a significant adverse change in the condition of a building’s structure, for example, footings, foundations, structural portions of load-bearing walls, structural floors and subfloors, primary roof structure, elevator shafts, and structural columns and beams, that may cause risks to safety and/or full or partial closure of a building.

Have you heard of RAAC?
If not, you need to be aware that an issue schools are grappling with currently is reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).  RAAC is a relatively new building material, and although there are advantages, the disadvantages include RAAC’s low compressive strength compared to traditional concrete (and therefore unsuitable for some types of construction), together with its susceptibility to water damage.
The DfE issued responsible bodies with a questionnaire to understand their awareness of RAAC. They also published non-statutory guidance on 14 December 2022 following issues in schools containing the material. RAAC panels may be present in floors, walls and roofs in education settings. They advise responsible bodies to seek specialist advice to assess it and develop management plans. Is it just me or is this starting to sound similar to the way asbestos is managed in schools?

We know the issues. We know the cost. So does the government. When will they take heed and put a proper long-term plan in place? They must stop kicking the issues down the line, leaving it to political will and fragmented vanity projects.

Hayley Dunn is ASCL Business Leadership Specialist

Posted: 11/01/2023 13:42:55