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Around 700,000 children in England studying in schools requiring major refurbishment

A new report has shown around 700,000 children in England are studying in schools requiring major rebuilding or refurbishment.

The National Audit Office’s report found that more than a third (24,000) of English school buildings are past their estimated initial design life. These buildings can normally continue to be used, but are generally more expensive to maintain and, on average, have poorer energy efficiency leading to higher running costs.

In recent years, there has been a significant funding shortfall contributing to deterioration across the school estate. The Department for Education (DfE) has reported £7 billion a year as the best practice level of capital funding to maintain, repair and rebuild the school estate. 

In 2020, it recommended funding of £5.3 billion a year to maintain schools and mitigate the most serious risks of building failure after expanding its school rebuilding programme over the next few years. DfE was subsequently allocated an average £3.1 billion a year of relevant funding from HM Treasury. 

This includes funding to re-build 500 schools over a ten-year programme, on which DfE is making slower than initially expected progress awarding contracts. Between 2016 and 2022, DfE spent an average £2.3 billion a year.

The report says DfE has assessed the possibility of a building collapse or failure causing death or injury as a ‘critical and very likely’ risk since summer 2021.

The report highlighted ongoing concerns with the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete prone to failure, used between the 1950s and mid-1990s. DfE has been considering the potential risk posed by RAAC since late 2018, following a school roof collapse.

DfE continues to build its understanding of where RAAC is used, including by collating questionnaire responses from schools, but does not currently have the information required to fully manage potential risks. At May 2023, 6,300 (42%) of the schools on which DfE has chosen to focus had completed work to establish if it was present. At that point, through questionnaire responses and wider work, DfE identified RAAC may be present in 572 schools. 

DfE has allocated £6 million for specialists to investigate 600 schools potentially affected by RAAC. By May 2023, 196 investigations had been conducted, with RAAC confirmed in 65 schools. In May 2023, DfE announced that, where RAAC is present in schools, it would provide funding to ensure that it does not pose an immediate risk.

The report also found that DfE has collected better evidence on the condition of the whole estate. This included identifying 13, 800 system-built blocks – almost all containing asbestos. 

However, of these, around 3,600 may be more susceptible to deterioration. In September 2022, DfE approved plans for a structural assessment of 200 system-built blocks to help better understand the risks – but none had been conducted as this report went to publication.

Read the full report here.

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