Seven unions have written to the government demanding immediate action to address the “shocking” state of school buildings in England, some of which are in danger of collapse.
It follows a call from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for full disclosure over exactly which school buildings are most at risk, and for urgent intervention to shore up those buildings most likely to structurally fail.
The letter suggests, however, that the Department for Education (DfE) does not know which schools are at greatest risk, that current assessments are “not thorough enough” and underlying structural problems may go unnoticed.
It points to research by the House of Commons library stating that between 2009-10 and 2021-22, overall capital spending on the school estate fell by about 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms. As a result, ageing buildings – some containing asbestos – have become increasingly dilapidated and are now at risk of falling down.
The DfE acknowledged the crisis in its annual report, published in December, which 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 school buildings dating from 1945 to 1970 when “system build” light-frame construction techniques were used. DfE officials also raised the risk level of buildings collapsing from “critical” to “critical – very likely”.
Labour has been asking the government to identify which buildings are worst affected. The letter says, however, that the department recently admitted that it “does not know which buildings are of concern”, as the building condition data collection exercise was only a visual inspection.
“Relying on individual schools to survey and report issues is insufficient, especially given that the asbestos management assurance process (Amap) showed a significant number of schools not compliant with asbestos regulations,” the letter says.
“Given the level of non-compliance with statutory regulations observed in the Amap process, it must be assumed that many schools will not be aware of the structural integrity of their buildings, as this is not a statutory requirement.”
The unions want to know what measures the government is planning to ensure it has a full and accurate picture, what steps will be taken to eradicate the risk of collapse, and what additional funding will be provided to ensure all school buildings are safe and fit for the future, including asbestos removal.
Simon Allford, president of the RIBA , told the Architects’ Journal: “The safety of school building users is paramount, so the government must urgently publish the buildings conditions survey and ensure any buildings with structural safety risks are immediately assessed, interim safety measures put in place, and all necessary works scheduled to an urgent programme.
“With so many buildings likely to be in need of overhaul, we hope to see the government seize the opportunity to invest in good design to ensure these vital community assets are fit for future generations.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT and one of the signatories to the joint union letter, 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.”
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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 that many children, young people and school staff work and learn in an environment that is dangerously unsafe.”
The other unions signed up to the letter are Community, GMB, NASUWT, Unison and Unite.
A DfE spokesperson said: “If the department is made aware of a building that poses an imminent risk of collapsing, immediate action is taken to ensure safety and remediate the situation.
“At present, the department is not aware of any school building that remains open in this state and would expect responsible bodies to immediately approach us if this were the case.”