Report: 700,000 pupils in ‘unsafe school buildings’ due to underfunding

An estimated 700,000 children are being taught in unsafe school buildings in England that need major works to repair them, according to a report.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says the Department for Education (DfE) has, since 2021, assessed the risk of injury or death from a school building collapse as “very likely and critical”.

But the risks have not been addressed because of years of underfunding.

The DfE says it has been “significantly investing in transforming schools”.

An official said “nothing is more important” than safety at school – and the department had allocated more than £15bn since 2015 to keep schools safe and operational.

But the NAO, the UK’s independent public spending watchdog, said the deteriorating condition of school buildings was damaging pupil attainment and teacher retention.

The NAO’s report found more than a third (24,000) of all English school buildings had passed their estimated initial design life.

And it highlighted continuing concerns for school buildings that still contain reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete prone to collapse, used widely between the 1950s and mid-1990s.

The DfE has identified 572 schools where RAAC might be present, so far confirming it in 65, of which 24 required immediate action.

The NAO said the safety risk from asbestos was also more severe in poorly maintained school buildings.

The NAO said the DfE had recommended minimum funding of £5.3bn per year to mitigate the most serious risks of building failure, in its 2020 spending review, with £7bn per year being the “best-practice” level.

But the department was subsequently given an average of £3.1bn per year from the Treasury.

A separate NAO report, also released on Wednesday, found the DfE had insufficient plans for making state-funded school buildings in England more environmentally friendly.

Responding to both reports, the National Education Union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the government was spending “nothing like enough” on school buildings.

“That not only has an impact on education. If you’re not sure which buildings might collapse, or if there is asbestos in the buildings which isn’t well managed, then there are risks to life and limb as well,” he added.

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