Almost one-third of schools’ buildings include materials either at the end of their shelf life or that pose a “serious risk of imminent failure”, official figures reveal.
Data shows more than 7,100 schools were given the worst possible rating for at least one aspect of their buildings during the Department for Education’s last full condition data collection (CDC).
Surveyors rated the “construction type” of parts of buildings on an A-D scale, such as slate for a pitched roof.
D is the worst, meaning “life expired and/or serious risk of imminent failure”, and that “immediate” repairs or replacement are needed – whereas other issues can be left for years.
It comes after the Observer reported last month that civil servants had warned Downing Street some sites were a “risk to life”, and demanded £13 billion for repairs.
“Conservative ministers are ignoring warnings from their own officials that some buildings are unsafe,” said Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson.
She obtained the figures after a parliamentary question last month. In response, schools minister Robin Walker said the department did not “know of” any potentially fatal risks at open schools.
127 councils have at least 20 schools in need
But the figures show 32 per cent of schools visited for condition checks between 2017 and 2019 were given a D rating for the “construction type” of at least one aspect of the building.
Every single council – bar City of London and the Isles of Scilly, the two smallest – had at least four schools requiring urgent work.
Some 127 had at least 20 schools in need, and 15 had more than 100 schools. Lancashire, Kent, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and Birmingham had the greatest number of schools affected, though this appears likely to reflect their size as some of the largest authorities.
Wilson noted 16 schools were affected in education secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s own constituency of Stratford-upon-Avon.
The DfE stressed it did not mean that one-third of school buildings were flawed, and that “construction type” could cover light fittings, decorations or doors.
But the Guardian previously revealed that one in six schools had major areas – such as electrics, roofs or ceilings – requiring immediate action.
Ministers under pressure to pay for repairs
The government is coming under increasing pressure to up its spend on school maintenance.
Some six per cent of the school estate dates back to before the year 1900. But capital spend this year is down 29 per cent in real terms on 2009-10.
Last month Evolution Academy Trust announced plans to permanently relocate Angel Road Junior School in Norwich, built in the 1800s.
School documents state this followed three partial ceiling collapses since February 2020, when material fell into halls and a classroom.
It also suffers from damp, “unsatisfactory” windows and a canteen “beyond life expectancy”. The trust says it can “no longer guarantee the safety of pupils, staff and visitors”.
Meanwhile a Merseyside MP demanded government renovation cash for Lydiate Primary School last month, saying the head’s office had collapsed and roofs were leaking. Safety concerns even forced it to temporarily close in 2019.
Evolution and the primary both declined to comment.
4 in 10 governors raise concerns
Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, said it was a “big deal” that managing and improving premises had jumped into governors’ top five strategic priorities in a member poll last year.
Four in ten governors raised it, second only to pupil mental well-being and ahead of behaviour, recruitment and SEND support.
Even some new buildings face significant problems.
“This £32 million school is 11 years old, and we’ve not had a year without a significant building failing,” said Glyn Potts, head of Newman RC College in Chadderton, Greater Manchester.
Ceiling panels were recently removed in several classrooms and hallways to stop them collapsing. “They were so frequently sodden in water they’d fall on children or staff. They turn to mush and there’s no strong risk of harm, but there is of embarrassment.”
He called for a government “fact-finding mission” about the state of schools like his, built and maintained through private finance initiative (PFI) deals in recent decades.
A DfE spokesperson said safety was “paramount”, with £13 billion spent on condition improvement since 2015. A school rebuilding programme will transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising safety issues, she added.
The DfE did not say how many issues found in the CDC had since been rectified. Walker said the latest CDC was under way, with more details promised later this year.