Structural issues in school buildings

The Department for Education has recently highlighted that there are many school buildings with “serious structural issues”, and that the "risk of collapse" of one or more blocks in some schools was a key risk for the department. We examine the issue and summarise the support that is available

The Department for Education's Consolidated annual report said: "There is a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools which are at or approaching the end of their designed life-expectancy and structural integrity is impaired. The risk predominantly exists in those buildings built in the years 1945 to 1970 which used ‘system build’ light frame techniques."

The report noted that the situation had worsened during the year, and was unlikely to improve during 2022 as capital funding was not increased.

However, when the DfE was asked by Unison if they were aware of how many buildings are affected, the it replied that that the information was “not held” by the department.

This has led to strong calls to rectify the situation by conducting a detailed survey of school buildings to identify the problems.

The situation is made worse by spending declines in capital spending. An official briefing from the House of Commons library found that, between 2009-10 and 2021-22, Department for Education capital spending declined by 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms.

Planned capital spending for 2022-23 is around £6.4 billion which is a 29% real terms increase compared to 2021-22.

Closing unsafe schools

The Department for Education has said that it is aware of thirty-nine schools that have closed temporarily or permanently since December 2019 because one or more of their buildings have been deemed unsafe.

Answering a Parliamentary written question from Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munria Wilson, schools minister Nick Gibb said the schools were closed due to a range of reasons, including structural concerns and general condition issues, such as roofing and boiler failures.

Of the 31 schools that temporarily closed, 23 were full closures and 8 were partial closures. Of the 8 schools that permanently closed, 3 were full closures and 5 were partial closures. Where schools have closed, pupils have been relocated to existing spaces available on the school site or into alternative accommodation until a long-term solution is in place.

Union involvement

Seven education unions - Community, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite - have written and co-signed an open letter to the Education Secretary, calling upon the Government to take urgent action to make school buildings at risk of collapse safe and fit for the future.

The unions urge the government to do a detailed survey of school buildings to identify the problems, as it says that relying on individual schools to survey and report issues is insufficient.

Dan Shears, GMB National Health, Safety and Environment Director, said: "It’s no great surprise that schools are in poor condition – we have had a lost decade of under-investment – but to discover that schools are in danger of literally falling down is absolutely scandalous."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This is a disaster waiting to happen, which in the worst-case scenario could end up costing lives unless the government wakes up and acts. That means demonstrating national leadership - identifying and being transparent about buildings at risk, ensuring the safety of pupils and staff using them, and implementing an urgent action plan to carry out repairs supported by a massive increase in investment. It should never have come to this, but it is little wonder when the government has halved capital funding for school buildings since 2010.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said: “This situation is the result of years of chronic under-investment in our education system and the school buildings estate. Schools are now counting the cost of the Government’s reckless decision a decade ago to abandon the Building Schools for the Future programme. Rebuilding and refurbishment investment is at a fraction of what is required to keep pupils and staff able to learn and work safely. School staff and parents deserve and need to know if their schools are at risk and what is being done to urgently to ensure the safety of their schools.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: "It is disgraceful that over the last decade of austerity our school buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that some are at risk of collapse, and the Government does not even know which buildings fall into this category. In one of the most advanced economies in the world it is shocking the many children, young people and school staff work and learn in an environment that is dangerously unsafe."

UNISON head of education Mike Short, said: “The government doesn’t appear to have a clue about the condition of school buildings. Sadly staff, pupils and parents know only too well that years of cuts have left classrooms and other learning facilities in a terrible state of repair. This awful situation needs fixing quickly with proper investment to make the learning environment not only safe but more comfortable for everyone too.

Funding for school building improvement

These are strong calls to remedy the situation of dangerous school buildings with a full assessment of the situation and more funding. But at present, there are various funding opportunities for schools if there building is in need of work.

Eligible academies, sixth-form colleges and voluntary-aided (VA) schools can apply for capital funding from the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) in an annual bidding round. The priority for the funding is keeping education buildings safe and in good working order. This includes funding projects that address health and safety issues, building compliance and buildings in poor condition.

The government also provides urgent capital support (UCS), which is specifically for urgent condition issues that pose the threat of immediate school closure.

Academies, sixth-form colleges or VA schools are eligible to apply if they do not receive SCA and they need funding assistance to address urgent building condition issues that either put the safety of pupils or staff at risk or threaten the closure of the whole or a significant part of your school.

The application will be considered only if there is a genuine and immediate need for UCS and it cannot wait until the next round of CIF.

UCS funding is offered primarily as a loan, subject to an assessment of finances, and trusts may also be required to contribute. Grant funding will be provided only in exceptional circumstances.

The government's flagship school rebuilding programme (SRP) carries out major rebuilding and refurbishment projects at school and sixth-form college buildings across England, with buildings prioritised according to their condition.

There are currently 400 projects in the programme, announced in 2021 and 2022, at varying stages in the process. Schools are provisionally allocated a place on the programme, subject to further due diligence, and projects will enter delivery at a rate of approximately 50 per year.