MPs have lashed out at the Government’s handling of the concrete crisis in schools with claims an ‘absolute catastrophe’ had only been averted through ‘sheer luck’.
A new report by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee was scathing about the ‘alarming’ state of classroom buildings.
It found ‘unacceptable numbers of pupils are learning in poorly maintained or potentially unsafe buildings’ in England.
There are an ‘alarming’ 700,000 pupils learning in schools that need major rebuilding or refurbishment, the MPs wrote.
This was a factor that was ‘ultimately limiting their educational achievements’, their report added.
They also hit out at the ‘shocking and disappointing’ lack of basic information provided by the Department for Education (DfE) about the crisis.
In August, days ahead of the return of pupils from the summer holidays, schools were plunged into crisis over the presence of ‘crumbly’ reinforced autoclaved concrete (Raac) in their buildings.
More than 100 schools, nurseries and colleges in England were ordered to close classrooms and other buildings by the Government.
In their new report, titled The Condition Of School Buildings, the PAC said it was ‘extremely concerned’ that DfE did ‘not have a good enough understanding of the risks in school buildings to keep children and staff safe’.
The cross-party group of MPs also said Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s department was unable to tell its inquiry how many surveys to identify Raac were outstanding.
The committee also said it was given no answers as to how many temporary classrooms had been provided to schools affected by the crisis, or when the issues with Raac would be addressed.
Their report recommended DfE expedite its programme of specialist surveys where Raac is suspected and be clearer on the funding it will provide to headteachers for temporary mitigation measures.
Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee, claimed an ‘absolute catastrophe’ with Raac had been ‘averted through sheer luck’.
‘A significant proportion of children in this country are learning in dilapidated or unsafe buildings,’ she said.
‘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.
‘The images of classroom ceilings collapsed onto empty school desks released in recent months are not just searing indictments of a deteriorating school estate.
‘They are chilling reminders of absolute catastrophe averted through sheer luck.
‘Given the poor condition of so many of these buildings, the Government’s prime challenge now is to keep the safety of children and staff absolutely paramount.’
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Tories had ‘slashed spending on the school estate’ since 2010, issuing a ‘cumulative cut’ of about £43 billion.
‘The Raac crisis exposes the folly of letting so much of the school estate fall into disrepair,’ he said.
‘However, the Government has yet to commit to increase spending or a timetable for the repair of schools with Raac.
‘The DfE would like to give the impression that they are now acting with speed to remedy the situation, but in truth they are still asleep at the wheel, now regularly missing their own deadlines to update the public.
‘In the autumn statement we need to see substantial new money to tackle a crisis in school buildings which has grown on this Government’s watch.
‘Parents, children and our members deserve better.’
Paul Whiteman, general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘It beggars belief that nearly three months after the Government’s belated, panicked crisis response to the Raac situation, schools and parents still cannot have confidence that ministers understand or have a plan to deal with the full extent of risks posed by deteriorating school buildings.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘We do not accept the committee’s assessment – the Government has taken swift action, responding to new evidence, to identify and support all schools with Raac to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers.
‘We have now gathered questionnaire responses from all education settings in the affected areas. The vast majority have no Raac and of those that do, most are providing face-to-face education with only a small handful providing a form of remote education for a short period..
‘We have been clear that we will do whatever it takes to remove Raac from the school and college estate. We are working closely with schools with Raac to ensure remediation work is carried out and disruption to learning is minimised.’
‘Our School Rebuilding Programme is continuing to rebuild and refurbish school buildings in the poorest condition, with the first 400 projects selected ahead of schedule.’