By Peter Jackson, Senior Associate, Browne Jacobson
To assist with any conversations regarding the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in, at the time of writing, 156 schools and colleges, we have prepared this briefing note to set out some of our initial thoughts on the key issues that will need to be considered.
Clearly the priority for all is the need to get children safely back into the classroom as soon as possible. However, a timing issue arises for those in occupation of affected properties under the terms of the DfE model academy lease.
That lease (which confers repairing obligations on the tenant academy trust for any deterioration to the property) provides that the trust’s landlord may serve notice requiring any breach of repair covenants causing a breach of health and safety legislation or structural damage be addressed by works commencing within 56 days of the service of such notice. Despite the promise of financial support from the government for required capital works, it seems very unlikely that either funds or contractors will be available to all schools within that timescale.
Accordingly, it is imperative that landlords (generally local authorities) should commit to work collaboratively with all tenants to agree a reasonable timeframe for addressing these issues and which is consistent with central government funding proposals.
Required government response
At present, on the government’s own figures, the number of schools currently affected appears to be relatively low. On this basis we believe that government should be able to respond swiftly to the current crisis, providing the sector with clear timelines for each affected building and setting out when:
- funding will be available;
- works will commence; and
- the building will be available for use
Given the urgency to address this issue, the government should make clear when affected schools can expect funding to be provided so that any interference with the delivery of education is minimised.
Although RAAC apparently affects a relatively small percentage of settings, this is one example of widespread concern within the sector as to the condition of the school estate.
The National Audit Office recently reported
that around 24,000 school buildings are beyond their initial estimated design life and around 700,000 pupils are in a school that is likely to require significant refurbishment.
While undoubtedly sector leaders will be lobbying policy makers and the Department for Education for a commitment to greater spending on school estates, there are also practical issues as to how sector leaders respond in terms of applying for capital works. Understandably, under the pressure of school leaders applying for support to maintain the school estate, the system for applying for capital works could become clogged and unwieldy.
At a time when recruitment of governors is extremely challenging, this is relevant not only to the obvious issues of health and safety and continuity of provision, but also to the liabilities to be managed by boards of trustees and governing bodies which are mostly populated by volunteers.
The results published last week of the National Governance Association’s Annual Governance Survey
revealed that almost 4 in 10 respondents said that their buildings were not in good condition, illustrating that this topic is of concern to members of governing bodies. If these serious issues are not properly supported retention of such volunteers will become a serious problem, let alone attracting new ones.
It is important that the sector collaborates to maintain momentum to address this issue, and to ensure that it does not slip down the political agenda (as has been the case with other major crises over the last five years).
Peter Jackson is Senior Associate at ASCL Premier Partner Browne Jacobson