With a bit of vision, we can upgrade the school estate

A fit-for-purpose school estate with sustainability at its heart is with the government's reach, says Claire Mantle. All it requires is a little long-termism

A fit-for-purpose school estate with sustainability at its heart is with the government's reach, says Claire Mantle. All it requires is a little long-termism

20 Sep 2023, 16:39

Schools with identified RAAC are being urged to put contingency plans in place in case of closure by the DfE

Ahead of an evidence session with a DfE minister in mid-October, the House of Commons environmental audit committee has this week called for evidence on the school estate and the department’s progress on delivering its net zero targets.

This comes as the RAAC crisis continues to engulf more schools (174, up from 147 in late August) and follows a highly critical National Audit Office report this summer which found that 24,000 school buildings in England (38 per cent of the total) are beyond their design lifespan.

Sadly, the NAO report also pointed out a lack of awareness within the department about which of its policies – if any – are having an impact on reducing carbon emissions.

This is all bad news, but the combination of attention on our crumbling school estate and growing concern over our climate change readiness could be a recipe for joined-up thinking and concerted action. What we need are actionable, reliable solutions.

As a collective, the design and construction industries, government and school leaders need to work together on short- and long-term plans. In doing so, everyone’s eyes should be firmly trained on the design principles which will ensure lasting improvements.

Prioritise resuming education

The biggest consideration in light of the RAAC crisis is the health and safety of all school users, followed closely by continuity in education delivery. But also to be taken into account is the pressure on affected communities caused by all this uncertainty.

The immediate priority is obviously to get schools at immediate risk back to full operation. This could be in the form of carefully contracted structural interventions. Meanwhile, temporary modular solutions are more sophisticated than ever before. But neither are long-term fixes.

Consider long-term, sustainable solutions

What schools need is for ministers to prioritise longer-term thinking around construction and the environment. The good news, in policy terms, is that a step-change is underway. The latest DfE School Output Specification (2022) focuses on the path to reduce carbon emissions within the DfE estate to zero. Crucially, budgets have been increased to reflect this requirement.

So in spite of the urgency for RAAC-affected schools, this is a moment to pause and reflect. These schools need urgent investment, but this should not be a patch-and-repair job or replacing like for like.

Unfortunately, the NAO report and the development of the RAAC crisis do not give much comfort that the DfE has embraced long-term thinking. Number 10 and the treasury also seem to be reluctant to act. Currently, the government has pledged to rebuild and refurbish 500 schools over the next 10 years and to conduct more thorough surveys where required. This progress is slower than needed.  

Partnerships can deliver

But the government does have the right resources at its disposal. The school buildings contractors’ framework, a list of specialists who know the DfE specifications and processes inside out, provides them with a pool of willing partners to work collectively and proactively to support schools with the solutions they so urgently need.

This includes looking at how feasibility processes can be safely expediated, how to get contractors on board in a timely way and how we can increase speed of delivery without compromising on long-term, high-quality solutions. During necessary works, it also involves looking at how to maximise off-site construction where feasible to minimise disruption so that schools can continue to operate as effectively as possible for their communities.

Partnerships between the design and construction industries, government and schools can deliver at scale and at pace. Crucially, they can do this while maintaining an overarching, holistic, case-by-case approach, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the one-size-fits-all approaches of the past.

They can do all of this and not lose sight of protecting the public purse, provided we take a longer-term view. The cost of a sustainable and fit-for-purpose school estate is great, but the cost of not having one is even greater.

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