Issue 129 - 2023 Autumn term
Emma Harrison reflects on the challenges and wider implications associated with a deteriorating school estate.

Are school estates crumbling?

Emma Harrison
ASCL Business Leadership Specialist
At the time of writing this article, 214 schools had confirmed reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) of varying levels. This resulted in immediate, full or partial closures of school sites at the start of the academic year for an indefinite period.

These schools began the term with a host of avoidable disruption that included abandoning unsafe sites, a return to online learning, a rota to go into their school and relocating different year groups to different sites (including procuring and transporting pupils on buses to their new temporary school building).

One school leader who had no choice but to close her school due to RAAC being present, recently said, “People make the school, not the building.” How true, but is it acceptable that children and staff learn and work in buildings that are unfit for purpose? As usual, school leaders have risen to the challenge, showing real resilient leadership to source and make safe new learning environments, in many cases for an unknown period. 
It is currently school admissions season, where parents are visiting school open days and evenings to determine which school is their preference for their child to attend, learn and thrive. Schools are unable to show their facilities that are deemed unsafe, and in some cases, are unable to hold open evenings on site. Current RAAC issues could also have longer term consequences, with the potential for falling pupils on roll and the associated funding challenges linked to this.
 

Health and safety must come first

Alongside RAAC, we know that many schools have roofing issues, failing boilers and asbestos. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently published its findings of phase one of its asbestos management inspections. It reported that two-thirds of schools were managing their asbestos well, leaving some work to do in the sector to ensure compliance and safety. Phase two of the inspections is currently underway. And now RAAC has been found in school buildings, this will have further implications on asbestos management. ASCL is calling on the government to remove asbestos from all schools and colleges, with the most at risk removed first.

We must also not forget that while schools are a place of learning for children and young people, they are also a place of work. We regularly hear from ASCL members in schools about leaky ceilings, paint coming off walls and the fact that they have no funding to fix these problems. We also know the sector is facing a recruitment and retention crisis. A deteriorating school estate does not promote good staff morale and wellbeing, and it certainly won’t attract much-needed new staff. The school estate should provide an environment for pupils and staff to work and thrive. 

Prior to the RAAC developments in the sector, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a highly critical report this summer that found that approximately 24,000 school buildings in England (38%) are beyond their lifespan. How much more evidence does the government need to prove that the school estate requires significant investment beyond the current school rebuilding programme and limited funding opportunities? 

This unfortunate RAAC episode has again brought health and safety issues, quite rightly, to the forefront of school and college leaders’ minds. As leaders, you may already have seen more discussions concerning health and safety issues appearing on Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) agendas, and you may be having more dialogue with health and safety representatives in your schools/trusts.

Now is the time to finally make our school estate a priority for funding. ASCL will continue to raise this important issue on your behalf and call for your schools and colleges to be made safe and properly funded, with a longer-term plan for the school estate.

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