Crumbling and dangerous buildings forcing schools to close

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

At least 39 state schools in England have closed all or part of their school site in the last three years because of fears over dangerous buildings.

Responding to a Parliamentary question, the Department for Education (DfE) said it was aware of 39 schools that had either temporarily or permanently closed all or parts of their site “because one or more school buildings have been deemed unsafe”.

It added: “This is due to a range of reasons, including structural concerns and general condition issues, such as roofing and boiler failures.”

School authorities are not obliged to report “building-related school closures” to the DfE.

Of the 39, eight schools have permanently closed part of their school site. Three of those schools have closed their full site completely.

A further 31 schools have closed temporarily since December 2019. Of those, 23 closed their entire school site, while eight closed part of it.

The question was tabled by the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, Munira Wilson, who said "crumbling schools have now become commonplace".

It comes after a group of education unions wrote a joint open letter to education secretary Gillian Keegan raising their fears about what they called the “shocking state” of many school buildings across the country.

In December, the DfE’s annual report identified building collapse as one of six key risks facing the sector, with the risk level being raised to “critical – very likely” and labelled as “worsening”: “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 those buildings built in the years 1945 to 1970 which used ‘system build’ light frame techniques.”

Research by the House of Commons Library reveals that overall DfE capital spending has declined by around 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2021/22 (Danechi & Long, 2023).

The government’s Autumn Statement 2022 included plans to increase education capital spending to £7bn in 2023/24, before reducing it to £6.1bn in 2024/25.

However, DfE’s Condition of School Buildings Survey (2021) revealed that it would cost £11.4bn to “repair or replace all defective elements in the school estate” (based on data from 2017 to 2019).

This includes almost £1.8bn on external walls, windows, and doors and almost £1.6bn on roofs. Electrical repairs account for almost £2.5bn.

It finds that 15% of the school blocks in the survey were built in the 1960s – equating to 9,463 blocks. These blocks accounted for a quarter of the repair or replacement work required.

There are also 8,083 blocks dating from the 1970s, 4,509 dating from the 1950s, and around 10,000 which were built before the Second World War.

The DfE provides annual condition funding to schools and those responsible for school buildings to improve and maintain the school estate. Its School Rebuilding Programme is also planning to rebuild buildings at 500 schools over the next decade and the DfE’s annual report said it would “prioritise those schools for selection where there is clear evidence this risk is present”.

However, almost two years since the DfE published the Condition of School Buildings Survey critics are shocked that it does not know which school buildings are at risk of collapse.

The issue of school building safety was raised during the recent DfE talks over industrial action and unions have revealed that officials admitted they did not know which buildings were of concern.

The unions’ letter states: “It should be noted that the Joint Trade Unions are extremely concerned that the DfE admitted at the … talks meeting that it does not know which buildings are of concern, as the (Condition of School Buildings Survey) 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.”

More generally, the letter adds: “Many buildings contain materials that were never intended to be still in use. This includes reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, a material with low compressive strength compared to traditional concrete, and therefore unsuitable for some types of construction, particularly with its susceptibility to water damage.

“Such failure to invest in the maintenance and renewal of our school estate inevitably has consequences and your department acknowledged the situation had reached crisis point (in its annual report in December).

“The post-war system-built structures that are at risk of collapse are also those most likely to contain asbestos, further compounding the gravity of the situation, should a collapse occur. This will ultimately make remedial work more difficult and more costly.”

The letter asks a series of questions of the DfE, including whether the DfE can publish a “full list of buildings at risk of collapse or confirm if it holds this information in part or not at all”.

It pushes for the DfE to confirm when affected buildings will be made safe and to explain what measures it is taking to “ensure it has a full and accurate picture of the state of the school estate”.

It also calls for information on what additional capital funding the government intends to provide to schools.

In its response to the Parliamentary question, the DfE said that it has allocated more than £13bn since 2015 for “keeping schools safe and operational”, including £1.8bn this financial year and that its work was “informed by consistent data on the school estate”.

It said that the School Rebuilding Programme will “transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising schools in poor condition or with potential safety issues”.

The DfE said that where a site closes, pupils are “relocated to existing spaces available on the school site or into alternative accommodation until a long-term solution is in place”.

Commenting on the government’s response to her question, Ms Wilson said: “These shocking statistics show how crumbling schools have now become commonplace. The government has been ignoring warnings from its own officials that some school buildings are unsafe, let alone fit-for-purpose.

“Successive prime ministers have cut capital spending on education and stood by while thousands of children’s learning has been disrupted.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, one of seven unions to sign the open 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. That means demonstrating national leadership – identifying and being transparent about buildings at risk, ensuring the safety of pupils and staff using them, and implementing an urgent action plan to carry out repairs supported by a massive increase in investment. It should never have come to this, but it is little wonder when the government has halved capital funding for school buildings since 2010.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, added: “This situation is the result of years of chronic under-investment in our education system and the school buildings estate. Schools are now counting the cost of the Government’s reckless decision a decade ago to abandon the Building Schools for the Future programme. Rebuilding and refurbishment investment is at a fraction of what is required to keep pupils and staff able to learn and work safely. School staff and parents deserve and need to know if their schools are at risk and what is being done to urgently to ensure the safety of their schools.

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.