A Summary of the ‘Condition of School Buildings’ Report
Approx. read time of report: 70 minutes
Approx. read time of Opex article: 5 minutes
The infrastructure of educational institutions plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of its students. An environment conducive to learning enhances the quality of education and ensures the safety and well-being of its occupants. The National Audit Office, in its recent report, delves deep into the condition of school buildings across England, shedding light on the pressing need for improvements and the challenges faced in achieving them. The urgency of these improvements is underscored by emerging concerns around the integrity of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in school structures.
The National Audit Office (NAO) is the UK’s independent watchdog for public spending. Tasked with holding the government accountable, the NAO plays a crucial role in ensuring that public funds are utilised efficiently and effectively. This recent report on the condition of school buildings highlights the NAOs’ commitment to improving public services, especially within education. The report’s findings underscore the significance of maintaining school infrastructure to providing a high-quality education for the next generation.
The School System and DfE’s Approach
England boasts a robust educational system with 21,600 state schools, catering to the educational needs of 8.4 million pupils. These schools encompass around 64,000 individual buildings.
These schools can be broadly categorised into maintained schools, overseen by local authorities, and academy trusts, which operate independently of the local authority. While the distribution and operational methodologies differ, the common thread binding them is the infrastructure they inhabit.
The Department for Education (DfE) has always emphasised the need to rebuild schools in dire condition. However, it also recognises the importance of allocating sufficient funds to maintain other school buildings. This dual approach, though commendable, faces challenges, especially when funding does not align with the estimated needs. For instance, between 2016-17 and 2022-23, the DfE spent an average of £2.3 billion annually on school rebuilding, maintenance, and repair. However, this amount is far below the DfE’s own £5.3 billion annual funding estimate to maintain schools and mitigate the most serious risks of building failure.
Understanding the Condition of School Buildings
A closer look at the school buildings reveals a variety of structures, each with its unique age and design. The report indicates that a significant portion of these buildings, around 38%, have outlived their estimated initial design life. While these structures can still serve their purpose with adequate maintenance, they often come with higher maintenance costs and energy inefficiencies.
Furthermore, the deteriorating condition of some school buildings has raised alarms about their impact on student performance and teacher retention. Poor infrastructure, ranging from inadequate ventilation to unusable sections of the school, can adversely affect the overall learning experience, especially for students with special educational needs.
Around 700,000 pupils (8.33% of all pupils in state schools) are currently learning in schools that either the responsible body or the DfE believes require major rebuilding or refurbishment.
Safety remains at the forefront when considering educational institutions. The vastness and complexity of the school estate presents challenges in overseeing and ensuring the safety of its structures. A significant concern highlighted in the report is the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete known for its susceptibility to failure.
The NAO report states, “The use of RAAC in school buildings poses a potential risk that needs immediate attention. Its susceptibility to failure, especially in older structures, can lead to unforeseen accidents and hazards.” This direct statement underscores the urgency and gravity of the situation.
The Department for Education (DfE) has been proactive in addressing this issue. As of May 2023, the department had initiated 600 assessments on school buildings that might contain RAAC. Out of these, 196 assessments were completed, confirming the presence of RAAC in 65 schools. Alarmingly, 24 of these schools required immediate action to address the potential risks associated with RAAC.
Matching Funding to Need
The root cause of the school infrastructure’s challenges is often related to funding. The gap between the DfE’s estimated funding requirements and the actual allocations has been a persistent issue. The department’s ambitious 10-year programme aims to refurbish or rebuild 500 schools in dire need of attention. However, as of March 2023, the DfE had awarded only 24 contracts, compared to its initial forecast of 83, less than 30%. This lack of progress can be attributed to various factors, including providers’ reluctance to take up contracts due to the unstable nature of the construction sector and rising inflation rates.
The condition of school buildings is not just a matter of bricks and mortar; it is about shaping the nation’s future. A robust educational infrastructure ensures safety and fosters a conducive learning environment. While adequate funding, strategic planning, and timely interventions are undeniably crucial, there is a pressing need to shift from a reactive approach to a more proactive one.
Planned preventive maintenance (PPMs) should be at the forefront of these strategies. Implementing PPMs ensures that potential issues are identified and addressed before they escalate into major problems, leading to cost savings in the long run and minimising disruptions to the learning environment. Simply reacting to problems as they arise is not sustainable. A comprehensive maintenance strategy should be proactive, anticipating and addressing potential issues before they become critical. This ensures the infrastructure’s longevity and guarantees students a consistent and optimal learning environment.
Furthermore, schools and responsible bodies should be equipped with the knowledge and resources to maintain their estates effectively. This includes having dedicated staff with professional estate management qualifications and a clear understanding of how to use capital funding effectively.
The findings of the NAO report resonate as a clarion call, urging stakeholders to come together and address the pressing needs of the school infrastructure issues. It addresses immediate concerns and lays a foundation for a sustainable, efficient, and future-proof educational infrastructure.