Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:49 pm ar 1 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 3:49, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Addington on securing this important debate. It is always a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I declare my interests as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I have an interest in safety in school buildings since my children’s primary school, Mayfield in Cambridge, of which I was also chair of governors, was severely damaged by fire in September 2004. It took 100 firefighters eight hours to bring the blaze under control and, importantly, despite Cambridgeshire County Council providing a perfect alternative site close to the school within two weeks, there is no doubt that the many months of rebuild were disruptive to the children’s education, not to mention the emotional distress caused by the destruction of their beloved local school.

Part of the problem was that the structure of the building exacerbated the fire damage. The early 1960s model was commonplace across the country, but it emerged that the large metal window frames were the major structural feature holding the top of the walls and the single-storey roof in place. One small fire started by an arsonist caused significant damage.

That is why I have campaigned for sprinklers in new schools or school buildings, but it is equally important to ensure that schools are built from the right materials. Just yesterday, Blatchington Mill School in Hove, which had one department damaged badly by a fire earlier this year, had to tell parents that the damage caused by smoke and water means that the school as a whole cannot reopen until after half-term at the earliest. I do not know the structure of this school but, once again, significant damage, including to electricity, gas and water supplies, could have been avoided if sprinklers were installed, as water damage would have been restricted to just one small department and there would have been no spread of smoke damage to the rest of the building, which has meant that none of the pupils can return yet.

The Minister wrote to the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group on 4 October, saying:

“I would like to confirm that I have already spoken with departmental officials, who will re-review the data that has been provided”.

The letter refers to a cost-benefit analysis of sprinklers and the effect on children’s education of a fire, with a consultation on Fire Safety Design for Schools—BB 100.

The all-party group has some concerns about the risk assessment of the impact that a fire has on children’s education and attainment levels. Time does not permit me to go into the detail, but our experts believe that some of the underlying assumptions used by the DfE were flawed. We also heard that the DfE is going to appoint a fire engineer; despite the all-party group writing to and meeting regularly with Ministers on this issue for more than 15 years, we welcome the fact that there will now be someone inside the department who understands the issues relating to buildings and fire.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, has the fire engineer now been appointed? If the answer is yes, have they started work? Secondly, as the Minister said that she would not come to a meeting of the all-party group but was prepared to meet with the officers, will she now undertake to do so as soon as practicable?

As my noble friend Lord Addington outlined, the RAAC scandal is also keeping children out of school. I pay tribute to my noble friend for his highlighting of the damage that this does to the education of children. After many years of concern by experts and the construction industry, in September, the Government announced that any school buildings with RAAC needed to be closed until they had been checked.

As with Mayfield Primary School’s extraordinary windows story, RAAC was a cheap construction component installed between the 1950s and 1970s. It transpires that many other public buildings, hospitals and universities contain RAAC, so this issue is a stark warning to the public sector about ensuring that buildings are built safely and to last. What advice is being given to schools about how to build safe and long-lasting schools for the future, even if they cost a small amount more at the time of construction? It is becoming so evident that methods used between 50 and 70 years ago are costing us dear.

In December, it was reported that nearly 1,000 schools were believed to contain combustible materials similar to those used in Grenfell Tower. Shockingly, a further 120 school projects under way since the Grenfell Tower fire have been built using combustible facade insulation. While it is important to note that this is now to be banned, the DfE still forbids the installation of sprinklers.

Rockwool, which makes non-flammable cladding, commissioned a report that identified a total of more than 1,000 school and university buildings erected since 2013 using combustible cladding. An article in the i newspaper last autumn reported that heads across the country are furious with these problems of safety in their school buildings, not just with RAAC and combustible cladding but with the continued discovery of problems with asbestos.

Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the National Education Union, said that government spending on schools is a third of that spent in 2010, and the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects has called for remediation and urgent funding by the DfE of all repairs.

This means that school estates cannot be repaired without impacting on the teaching element of school budgets, and that replacement of unsafe or flammable buildings, whether RAAC, cladding, or lack of sprinklers, is patchy at best, rather than repairs bringing buildings up to a safe standard for the future. I urge the Government to take these concerns on board and not only build and repair schools that need it, so that they will last for many years into the future. That will ensure that our children, their teachers and other staff can learn and teach in a safe environment for many years to come.