Our schools are in an urgent state of repair – let’s hope the government responds accordingly
Over the past 12 months, the local press has been increasingly littered with “horror stories” about the condition of local schools, as public sector cuts are blamed for leaking roofs, broken windows, and failing heating.
One Birmingham-based publication recently reported that a primary school staff member had fallen over trying to mop up “floods” in the main hall after it rained; elsewhere, a Kent headteacher protested that areas of several classrooms had had to be cordoned off for buckets catching leaks. The head of a Nottinghamshire secondary even alleged that “some garden sheds are built to a higher standard” than his crumbling school building.
These tales rarely reach a national audience. When a £55bn school building programme is canned and more than 700 major projects put on ice, the attention of national media - and, in a lot of cases, politicians - has been on the plight of schools that need total replacement rather than those that are struggling to meet a £7,000 repair bill.
The problem of how to maintain the school estate is something no recent government has got right
But the revelation this week that the schools maintenance backlog in England and Wales could be as high as £22bn should thrust the maintenance problem into the national spotlight. To put this in context, £22bn is £7bn more than the amount the government has set aside for all its school building over the next five years. It is also higher than the £19bn maintenance backlog identified in the housing sector that led to the creation of the 10-year Decent Homes programme in 2002.
The problem of how to maintain the school estate is something no recent government has got right. There is no system for collecting building condition data, and next to no monitoring of how funds are spent. And it’s never really been a priority - repairing roofs is not a political point winner in the way that, for example, the opening of a glut of free schools could be.
But, with an estimated £1.6bn needed by schools annually just to “tread water” - let alone the worsening backlog - it’s a problem the government urgently needs to resolve. Sebastian James recommended in his review of schools procurement that schools should be allocated a small amount of funding to address repairs, aggregated to local authorities for distribution across an estate. He said there should also be a rolling programme of data collection on school building condition, to inform the funding process.
The government’s response to that review, expected next week, would do well to endorse these recommendations, and thereby also unlock a steady stream of funding to struggling SMEs - another supposed priority. But the government needs to consider maintenance needs alongside more extensive refurbishment, and new build. Because patching up roofs, only then to tear down a building because it is far beyond its lifespan, is an obvious waste of funding in an era when there is already far too little.
So, the government needs to meet calls for a coherent programme of school renewal to be put in place quickly - beginning with a clear response to the James review. Rumours that it is considering another extensive consultation phase, if proven true, could lead to delays and a draining of funds from which it will become harder and harder for the country’s schools, and the education construction sector, to recover.
Sarah Richardson, deputy editor