Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:11 pm ar 1 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:11, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I echo other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this debate on this very important subject. I take this opportunity to thank all our school leaders, those working in trust, local authority and voluntary-aided schools, for their work if they have been affected by RAAC. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, pointed out, this has been less in the public eye recently, and I would like to say that it is because this is being properly addressed. In addition to my thanks to those in schools, I add my personal thanks to officials in the department who have worked tirelessly with schools to try to resolve this problem.

As we can all agree, the safety of pupils and staff in our schools and colleges is of the utmost importance. That is why when new evidence emerged over the summer regarding reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—we took immediate action to ask settings to take spaces known to contain RAAC out of use until mitigations were put in place.

I slightly took exception to some of what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, described in the Government’s response. The Government have been working on this issue for a long time with schools and colleges. Indeed, we have been talking to them about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018, when we published a warning note with the Local Government Association which asked all responsible bodies—that is, trusts, local authorities and dioceses—to identify any properties constructed using RAAC and to ensure that RAAC properties were regularly inspected by a structural engineer. Again, I do not think it is fair to describe this as not as clear as mud.

In February 2021, we issued a guide on identifying RAAC. Then we were concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough. In 2022, we decided to take a more direct approach by issuing a questionnaire to responsible bodies to ask them to identify whether they had or suspected they had RAAC, and then we started a significant programme of technical surveys. With almost 16,000 schools built in the period when RAAC was used, that was no small task to undertake.

In July 2023, we emphasised the importance of keeping school buildings safe and well maintained in the Academy Trust Handbook. This update included additional content on safety and management of school estates and a new requirement in the Academies Accounts Direction for accounting officers to confirm that they are managing their estates in line with their statutory responsibilities. I am pleased to confirm that responsible bodies have submitted responses to the questionnaire for 100% of schools and colleges with blocks built in the target era. All those which advised us that they suspected that they might have RAAC have had a first survey to confirm whether it is present.

The vast majority of schools and colleges surveyed to date have been found to have no RAAC. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke about a “significant percentage” of schools having RAAC. It is important to be accurate in how we describe this. There are over 22,000 schools and colleges in England, of which 231—around 1%, which it is fair to say is not a significant percentage—have confirmed RAAC in some of their buildings. All education settings with RAAC are in full-time face-to-face education for all their pupils. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, we will publish a full list of all settings shortly.

Every school or college with confirmed RAAC is assigned dedicated support from our team of caseworkers. Project delivery teams are on-site to support schools and colleges to implement mitigation plans. They work with them to put in place bespoke plans that suit their circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, stressed the immediate need for funding—I think he asked whether we would “punch through” with the Treasury. We did not need to, because the Chancellor has confirmed that we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe. The Government are funding the emergency work needed to mitigate the presence of RAAC. This could include installing structural supports or temporary buildings.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about disruption. It is important not to generalise and take the most complicated cases of RAAC, such as in some of the largest secondary schools and some of the special schools, which are the hardest cases for obvious reasons. However, the vast majority of schools did not lose any face-to-face education.

All reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations or temporarily renting a local hall, are being approved. Responsible bodies should discuss their requests with their caseworker at the Education and Skills Funding Agency in the first instance to agree any further support needed. To address the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we are treating RAAC revenue requests as the highest priority and working closely with responsible bodies to process their requests as quickly as possible and ensure that our processes are not burdensome. We can also arrange urgent payments if needed.

Most importantly, we are funding longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to replace RAAC. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, schools and colleges will be offered either capital grants to fund refurbishment work to permanently remove RAAC or rebuilding projects where needed, including through the school rebuilding programme. She asked me about a target date for removing RAAC. The critical date is that, today, no child is in a classroom in which they are at risk from RAAC. We could not say that a few months ago, so we should recognise that as the important first milestone on the road to replacing it as appropriate.

The requirements of each school or college will vary depending on the extent of RAAC and the nature and design of the buildings. We will be informing schools and colleges very shortly of our decisions.

The right reverend Prelate asked about the impact of pupil numbers. The House may be aware that we work on a lagged funding basis. If there is a fall in pupil numbers, that is softened by the lagged funding model, but we work with individual schools and if there are schools with particular pressures, of course we will work with them to address those.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about how we support responsible bodies to ensure that the necessary maintenance and construction upgrades take place. We support them by providing capital funding. We have a lot of guidance and support. We have a team of capital advisers who will go out free of charge and work with schools and responsible bodies. Of course, if there is an immediate and serious concern about a building, we work closely to address that. We have allocated over £15 billion of capital funding since 2015, including £1.8 billion in this financial year. That is on top of our 10-year school rebuilding programme. That programme will transform buildings in 500 schools, prioritising those in poor condition and with potential safety issues. We have announced 400 schools so far, of which we announced 239 in December 2022, and eight have been completed. I think that there was a concern that schools that will be rebuilt as a result of RAAC will somehow displace those that are already in the programme. I assure the House that this is not the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about Ofsted inspections. Ofsted did suspend its inspections for schools affected by RAAC last term, but it is now resuming them, given that all children are now all in face-to-face education.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the issue of cladding standards and fire safety. She pointed out the changes that we have made in the use of combustible cladding. Of course, we are insisting that automatic fire suppression systems such as sprinklers are installed in all new schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, those with residential blocks and schools over 11 metres or four storeys in height. We have updated our guidance for new school buildings to ensure that we increase the already high fire safety standards in new schools. I am pleased to be able to confirm that our new fire engineer started work in the department on 15 January.

In relation to examinations, we recognise that this has been, for a relatively small number of schools, a tremendous disruption to education. We are doing everything that we can to work with settings to give those schools the financial and practical support to ensure that children in exam years in particular can catch up as effectively as possible. However, the legislation on examinations is very clear. Only with a change in legislation would we be able to make some of the changes which noble Lords suggested. The legislation is clear that exams show what children know and can do and not what they might have been able to do if they had been taught differently or under different circumstances. It is not possible to make changes to exams to reflect the impact of disruption on some groups of pupils. However, we have worked with awarding organisations to facilitate discussions with affected schools. We have asked them to agree longer extensions for coursework wherever possible and non-examined assessments, so that pupils have as much time as possible to complete those tasks.

I am running out of time, but on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about contact with our counterparts in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, we have a cross-UK group which makes sure that we have the most effective engagement on these issues.

In closing, I reassure most importantly pupils, parents, teachers and staff in all our schools and colleges that this has been a massive focus for the department over many years, but particularly in the last four months. I particularly thank the leadership of those teachers who are giving real confidence to their pupils to overcome the difficulty with which they have been presented. I thank them personally, from the bottom of my heart.