Crumbling schools: DfE promises to publish data – but not just yet

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

Data showing the condition of school buildings will be published before the end of the summer recess, the Department for Education (DfE) has pledged.

Government ministers defeated an Opposition Day Debate in Parliament on Tuesday evening (May 23). A Labour-led motion forcing the DfE to publish data from school building surveys carried out between 2017 and 2019 was defeated by 296 to 171. But during the debate schools minister Nick Gibb did promise Parliament that the data would be published by the end of the summer.

The problem of crumbling school buildings is not going away for ministers, with opposition politicians and education trade unions piling on the pressure, particularly over real-terms cuts to capital funding.

Research by the House of Commons Library revealed 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).

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.”

And in February, in responding to a Parliamentary question the DfE admitted 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” (UK Parliament, 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).

The government’s data collection programme between 2017 and 2019 found 7,158 schools that had at least one construction element – such as roofs, doors, fittings – graded D, the worst category, meaning “bad: life expired and/or serious risk of imminent failure”.

The DfE says it has committed £1.8bn of capital funding for 2023/24 specifically to improve the condition of school buildings. And earlier this week, it announced more than 1,000 school improvement projects had been given the go-ahead.

The DfE adds that the School Rebuilding Programme will “transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising schools in poor condition or with potential safety issues”. In December, 239 new school buildings were confirmed under this programme, with 400 of the 500 schools now having been selected for rebuilds.

Responding to the DfE’s pledge, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that transparency about potential safety risks in schools was vital.

He added: “Of course, publishing the data is only the first step and, by itself, does not solve the problem. This data needs to be followed by an ambitious plan and major new government investment in school repairs and rebuilding.

"Capital funding for school buildings has been halved in real terms, and only 50 schools a year now benefit from the government’s school rebuilding programme. Continued failure to act with the necessary urgency risks putting the lives of children and school staff at risk.”

Much of the data on the state of school buildings has been revealed thanks to Parliamentary questions from Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson. Speaking after the vote on Tuesday, she said: “It is an absolute disgrace that this Conservative government would vote to cover up the names of school buildings built from dangerous or ‘life-expired’ materials.

“Parents deserve to know whether their child is being sent to a school that is safe and fit for purpose, or to a school liable to collapse at any moment. Yet ministers won’t even name the schools that have had to shut because they were unsafe for pupils.”

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