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Making sure schools are fit for purpose

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In July 2012 the Department for Education (DfE) allocated £30m for surveying the condition of all schools. Sounds generous, but using the department’s estimate of 23,000 schools it works out at £1,300 a school, which is about the same price as surveying a detached house with a decent sized garden.

There is a large body of anecdotal evidence of slum-like school buildings. A 2012 survey by Key, a national education support service, reported that 40% of headteachers claimed their school buildings were unfit for purpose.

The DfE’s pound-stretching surveys ignore the suitability and sufficiency of school buildings and settle for simple visual checks of features in plain sight from floor or ground level. The DfE expects a small primary school to be surveyed in half a day and a secondary in 3-4 days, and to publish the results by October This means surveying around 90 schools a day.

Restricting a survey’s scale, scope and time identifies less remedial work and underestimates costs. Even with detailed surveys, once work starts completely unforeseen defects are discovered. Asbestos is a good example. Schools should have an asbestos management plan but only the imprudent place much reliance on its accuracy.

The condition of each item in these surveys is graded as Good, Satisfactory, Poor or Bad with timescales for the remedial work in each category. ‘Bad’ items must be done without delay. A pilot scheme involving 29 primary schools highlighted £9.3m of remedial work, of which £3.6m needed immediate attention. On these figures the DfE is looking for around £10-15bn, with £4-6bn needed instantly.

One pilot school required £764,000 of work, with £463,000 classed as urgent. It received £224,900 to keep the school in a safe and operational condition for the next four to five years. Is this the future for half of our schools, brought up to a condition that sees them close in 2020 as being in a non-operational and unsafe condition?

In 2011, 587 schools bid for urgent remedial repairs under the Priority School Building programme, of which 261 (45%) received cash. This time it is possible that losing schools desperate to carry out urgent work will conduct their own surveys and challenge the DfE’s allocation.

There are other demands on education budgets. Next year, schools expect an additional 256,000 pupils, rising to 400,000 by 2018. The programme for providing these new places should be well advanced, not leaping late on stage and hogging the spotlight.

The problem is that no-one knows where these additional places are needed or, as the National Audit Office puts it, the department’s assessments of funding required to meet expected demand are based on incomplete information.

Excluding sufficiency and suitability from these surveys now becomes a missed opportunity and when it comes to finding cash, it may be a choice between providing additional places and leaving children in schools that are unfit for purpose.

Regularly surveying all schools is sound practice. A hasty, poorly planned, inadequately resourced one-off survey is a waste of £30m that is better spent elsewhere.

The blame game starts when its deficiencies become apparent. Then the DfE, local authorities, governors, headteachers, aided schools, controlled schools, academies and free schools will fight their corner while our children lose out.

Keith Banks and Alastair Buchan, former assistant directors of education with responsibility for school premises including PFI and Building Schools for the Future projects

 

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