Schools facing serious building failure, says National Audit Office

An extra £2.2 billion of funding per year is needed to avoid ‘the most serious risks of building failure’ in schools across England, according to the National Audit Office (NAO)

The Department for Education (DfE) recommended a ‘minimum’ £5.3 billion a year spend to allow urgent building repairs in a 2020 spending review – and £7 billion as an ideal. But it has only received an annual average of £3.1 billion per year in Treasury funding, resulting in a significant shortfall.

The figures were published in an NAO report on 28 June, which warns that the major gap in funding has led to a ‘critical’ risk of England’s decaying school buildings injuring or killing their occupants.

The independent public spending watchdog estimates that around 700,000 children in England attend schools ‘requiring major rebuilding or refurbishment’.

Moreover, the DfE has assessed the possibility of a building collapse or failure causing death or injury as ‘critical and very likely’ since summer 2021, the NAO found.

Concrete and asbestos concerns

The report highlighted ongoing concerns with the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete used between the 1950s and mid-1990s, which is prone to failure and resulted in a primary school roof collapsing ‘with little warning’ in 2018.

The DfE also identified up to 3,600 system-built blocks containing asbestos which could be ‘susceptible to deterioration’ across the entire school estate. But it has yet to complete a structural assessment to better understand the risks of the blocks, despite approving plans for one in September 2022.

The NAO found more than a third (24,000) of English school buildings are ‘past their estimated initial design life’, making them more expensive to maintain with poorer energy efficiency and higher running costs.

Since 2020, the DfE has been allocated an average of £3.1 billion a year of relevant funding from the Treasury. This includes money to rebuild 500 schools over a 10-year programme. However, the department is making slower than initially expected progress in awarding contracts, and spent an average of £2.3 billion a year between 2016 and 2022.

According to the NAO, the deteriorating condition of the school estate also ‘presents challenges for DfE’s sustainability ambitions’, highlighted in a second report published today, DfE: Sustainability Overview.

The report found the DfE ‘had insufficient plans for decarbonising the school estate’, lacked ‘a clear, national picture of the sustainability position of schools or the risk that climate change poses’, and has not yet set a target to reduce emissions from its buildings, despite being responsible for 37 per cent of emissions from public sector buildings.

NAO chief Gareth Davies said: ‘DfE has, since 2021, assessed the risk of school building failure or collapse as critical and very likely, but it has not been able to reduce this risk.

‘More widely, it has an ambitious strategy for decarbonising the education estate but no plan for how it will achieve this or how much it is likely to cost.

‘DfE is gathering some of the data it needs to effectively target its resources. It must now use this to improve its understanding of where schools are most at risk so it can balance addressing the most urgent risks while investing enough in maintenance, reducing carbon emissions, and climate change adaptation measures to achieve its objectives and secure longer-term value for money.’

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