Ministers have been ordered to commit to a funding package and deadline to rid schools of collapse-prone RAAC like their NHS counterparts.
In a damning report, penned by the public accounts committee, the Department for Education was also told it must “urgently” get a handle on the number of inaccurate responses from schools to its RAAC questionnaire.
The calls come after Schools Week revealed on Friday that three Stockport schools that had originally been given clean bills of health have closed following extra RAAC inspections.
In the summer, the National Audit Office revealed that years of chronic underinvestment have meant 700,000 children are being educated in buildings needing major repairs.
Speaking today, PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said “overcoming the consequences of this deficit of long-term infrastructure planning will not be easy” for the Department for Education.
“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…the government’s prime challenge now is to keep the safety of children and staff absolutely paramount.”
Here’s what today’s report revealed…
1. DfE must ‘assess risks of inaccurate RAAC questionnaires’
Since last March, responsible bodies that oversee schools – either a council or academy trust – have been asked to fill in questionnaires on whether their buildings have the material.
DfE chief operating officer Jane Cunliffe told PAC in September that a sample of primaries and secondaries that didn’t think they have RAAC, despite being built during when the concrete was commonly used, will be checked.
If this shows “there were false negatives, we will have to think about what we do and whether there’s more surveying we need to do”, she added.
PAC has now recommended that the department “needs to urgently assess the risks of inaccuracies within RAAC questionnaire returns and specialist surveys”. It said this would allow the government to consider “these risks in its overall approach, decision-making and guidance”.
2. Health bosses going further on RAAC
The committee also told education chiefs they should replicate the Department of Health’s reaction to the crisis. The report noted how hospital bosses have established a “£685 million fund to 2024–25 to mitigate RAAC” and pledged to “remove RAAC from the NHS estate by 2035”.
Meanwhile, the DfE “has made no such financial or practical commitments”. PAC argued that the department should “make clear when and how it plans to have eradicated” the concrete from the school estate, “line with the approach already taken” by health.
It urged education officials to “expedite” their “programme of specialist surveys where RAAC is suspected”, and in “due course publish the full set of results” so the extent of the problem is known. NHS England has said there is now “a limited number” of engineers available.
The committee also demanded that the DfE write to it “with its latest assessment of the scale” of the crisis, its “plan to deal with it, and the likely associated costs”.
Latest government figures, published last month, confirmed the presence of RAAC at 214 schools.
3. Confusion over government’s RAAC decision-making
Education secretary Gillian Keegan escalated her department’s RAAC policy by ordering 104 schools to partially of fully close days before the start of the new academic year. This came after three collapses “without warning” in buildings considered non-critical.
Officials told PAC they had “therefore decided to take a more risk-averse approach, and advise that all spaces” with the concrete, even if they were considered safe, should be closed.
But they “failed to clarify whether” the change of tack stemmed from a realisation the assessment process “was insufficient” or if the department had altered “its risk appetite”.
The report said DfE should “clarify its risk appetite…and ensure this feeds through into consistent decision-making, with a nominated senior official in charge”.
4. Delaying securing temporary classrooms
The government had hoped to use “central contracts to enable speedier delivery of temporary classrooms to all RAAC-affected schools” and to pay for them centrally out of its capital funding pot.
But officials “conceded that in some cases responsible bodies had decided to procure temporary classrooms themselves because they felt the DfE route was not delivering what they needed”.
The department has also assigned caseworkers to each school found to have the concrete. But PAC “challenged DfE with evidence that the system was not working perfectly”.
“For example, it took some time for caseworkers to be given devolved authority to take spending decisions.
“And there were examples of schools having to engage in protracted discussions over who would pay for basic equipment such as temporary whiteboards.”
5. Knowledge of asbestos still incomplete
DfE agreed in May 2022 to urgently chase the “7 per cent of schools that had not responded to the asbestos management survey it launched” five years ago. In July, the figure had been cut to just over 4 per cent, which represents almost 1,000 schools.
The government’s second condition data collection programme will not specifically check for the material, but it will feature a review of “asbestos management plans and compliance with guidance”.
Leaders’ union NAHT has also written to PAC to warn that there can be “a higher risk of asbestos disturbance” in schools than in other workplaces. Health and Safety Executive figures suggest 11 current or former teachers died from conditions related to the material each year.
PAC told DfE to provide it with “evidence that it has a full picture of asbestos” across the school estate “as soon as possible”.
6. Not enough focus on ‘long-term measures’
The NAO detailed in the summer that the government’s school rebuilding programme, which launched in 2020, had fallen behind schedule. As of May, just 24 contracts had been awarded compared to a forecast of 82, with one scheme completed compared to its forecast of four.
The PAC report said DfE “concedes that it will not be able to catch up on projects where it is already behind the planned timeframe, but it is confident it will stay on track” for upcoming developments.
The committee added: “We have asked project management experts about the early warning signs that a project may need to be reset.
“They replied that the signs include critical milestones not being met, significant cost pressures that cannot be recovered later in the project, and benefits being way off track in terms of realisation.”
Many of the 100 schools still to be selected for the programme will be chosen because they have RAAC.
But PAC argued this means many others in poor condition will not be able to secure a place on the scheme, even though longer-term value-for-money assessments would conclude “they should be rebuilt”.
“Within the next year, DfE should set out its strategy for encouraging responsible bodies to carry out timely and effective repairs to better protect longer-term value for money.”
7. Councils left without access to advisers
PAC calculated that 10 local authorities “would not reach the threshold to [automatically] receive maintenance and repair funding directly if they were multi-academy trusts”.
When asked if it was providing these smaller councils with additional support as “they may lack dedicated resources for school estate management”, the DfE said: “Authorities have estates responsibilities in other parts of their operations, which should help them access the appropriate expertise.”
It also confirmed that its capital advisers programme – which sees building experts sent into trusts – is only targeted at academy chains. Officials did not rule out the idea of extending the scheme to local authorities, PAC added.
The Catholic Education Service has also argued that MAT “funding for school buildings should be given directly to dioceses”. The report revealed the department is in discussions with the bodies “to determine whether different administrative arrangements would deliver improvements”.