Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:35 pm ar 1 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 3:35, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, as the Chamber empties, the first thing I should say on this debate is to remind everybody listening of what we are talking about: reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. It is a type of concrete of which I have heard some very picturesque descriptions—“a cement Aero bar” was my favourite. I am not quite sure what that confectionery has done to deserve comparison to this substance, but we are talking about a type of concrete that does not have aggregates in it, and thus is light, with its strength given by putting steel strips in it. It is used in things such as roofs and walls. In Britain, it is used very heavily in roofs. It is fine if it is kept dry and well-maintained. Unfortunately, it has been used in school roofs. Whatever you say about schools’ maintenance budgets, we can all agree that they have not been that great or consistent, and anybody who has ever owned a house knows that you cannot guarantee not to have leaks. We have in schools a substance which is porous, above your head and can collapse. This is not a good starting point.

The timeline for when trouble was first spotted is incredible. This issue was first raised in 1996. In 1999, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety maintained that we should be identifying it. We have had this problem a long time and we have not dealt with it. We waited until the situation got critical, when things started falling down, and then had to run around trying to do something about it. This is where we have got to. What has been the result? We have schools which are unsafe—when your classroom ceiling comes in, you cannot teach in it.

Here we come to the real nub of the matter: children’s education is affected. We find classrooms that are not fit for purpose and potentially dangerous, and we have to take remedial action. We can bandy around figures about just how many, but a few hundred schools are affected and tens of schools have actually been collapsing. In certain key cluster areas, the construction pattern of previous years has led to schools that do not work and pupils who are not being educated. Largely, they are the same pupils who have already had their school life disrupted by the Covid lockdown. This Chamber has talked often enough about not getting enough children into school. We have a historically high absentee rate. Across schools we have children who are not functioning in their classrooms, and we have this thrown in.

Then we see that the maintenance of schools has usually been something that people have wanted to put off for another day. We have not had the drive to make sure schools are maintained. We have not spotted the problem and now we have this nice little crisis coming down and pushing in. The Government’s response has been, “Oh, terrible! Let’s stop going in and let’s take money from somewhere else, roughly in the budget, and push it in here as a priority”. This effectively means that you are robbing Peter to pay Paul—moving money around within the school budget. So we are going to have other problems in other areas, and there are already other problems in the school infrastructure package—we know that.

One of the things that brought this issue to my attention was the “Panorama” programme showing temporary classrooms that were older than the teachers in them. I ask the Government this: if you are bringing in temporary structures, what is their life expectancy and where will that be reported? Before this debate, the Local Government Association came to me and said, in effect, “By the way, it has always been clear as mud as to where we have these problems”. Can we have some guarantee that we will take the information about where the problems have been identified and pass it on to those who will have to make the budgetary decisions? That is one of the things that we should do on the way through.

The second thing is that we simply must make sure that the schools that have this issue get the extra funding they need to deal with the situation now. If we strip the budget or move things around, we will create more problems across the piece. What is the Government’s attitude to making sure that funding goes directly to this problem now, and quickly? We have had emergency funding before, and okay, the figures will sound big. The Government will then tell us that we are spending more money than we have ever spent before. Last night, we had a debate about financial education. One of the things we did not mention was inflation. Inflation means that you will always spend more money on a project today than you did yesterday. Some of the figures I have received estimate that, in real terms, our budget has been consistently lower than at any time since around 2003.

What are we going to do to make sure that the immediate need is met? We have a situation where children who should be in a classroom and should be being taught are not. We then have extra costs being lumbered on people, such as for temporary accommodation and moving children around. They are not concentrating; it is going to be more difficult. Some will come through and some wonderful teachers will pick up the slack, but any system that says you have to be a little lucky and a bit special has a degree of failure in it; if you have to be very lucky and very special, it is a total failure.

Can the Minister tell us how the Government mean to mitigate this quickly and keep track of what they have done, so that we can come back in and make sure that temporary solutions are not becoming permanent ones? That is an important facet here. The temporary classroom that sits in the corner of a school estate should be gone in five or 10 years. It should not be waiting for its third refit.