Critical school repairs are being further delayed by the crisis over crumbling concrete, an influential group of MPs has warned.
The School Rebuilding Programme, already held up by a failure to attract contractors, risks being blown further off course by mounting fears over the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) across the estate, the House of Commons’ cross-party Public Accounts Committee said.
About 1,200 schools, attended by a total of 700,000 pupils, are being considered for the programme, which aims to rebuild or refurbish the 500 buildings with the greatest need.
But in a new report on the condition of school buildings, the committee accuses the Department for Education (DfE) of focusing on “reactive measures” addressing immediate building concerns that often fail to take account of longer-term value considerations.
The department said many of the 100 schools yet to be selected for the programme are set to be chosen because they have serious issues with RAAC.
That means many other schools will be excluded from the programme even though a longer-term value-for-money assessment based on their poor condition ought to lead to the conclusion that they should be rebuilt, the committee says.
Inflationary pressures in the building industry have already made it difficult to find contractors under the scheme, pushing it behind schedule, it adds – echoing concerns from the National Audit Office in June.
By March, the department had delivered just one project instead of the forecast four, and awarded 24 contracts compared with the 83 it had expected.
The government reacted to the tentative response from contractors by offering risk-sharing arrangements that were more attractive to the building sector, and by standardising the design of buildings, the report notes.
The department conceded that it would not be able to catch up on projects where it was already behind, but was confident that it would stay on track for upcoming projects, the committee adds.
However, the committee fears inflation and other external challenges mean the programme may no longer achieve its intended outcomes, and that it will be too costly to do so.
Last week, it also warned that some hospitals may have to close before their replacements are ready, due to concerns over the presence of RAAC in the healthcare estate.
Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, said it was “beyond unacceptable” for children to have to learn in dilapidated or unsafe buildings, and that overcoming the challenges of a long-term deficit in infrastructure planning would not be easy.
“The School Rebuilding Programme was already struggling to stay on track, and DfE lacked a mechanism to direct funding to regions which need it most,” she said.
“It risks being blown further off course by concerns over RAAC, and many schools in dire need of help will not receive it as a result.”
Given the poor condition of so many school buildings, the government’s prime challenge is now to keep the safety of children and staff paramount, said Hillier.
The Department for Education said it did not accept that there had been slow progress on the School Rebuilding Programme, with current average project durations having met or improved on timescales based on previous comparable programmes.
“Our School Rebuilding Programme is continuing to rebuild and refurbish school buildings in the poorest condition, with the first 400 projects selected ahead of schedule,” a spokesperson said.
She added that the government has taken swift action, responding to new evidence, to identify and support all schools with RAAC to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers.
“We have now gathered questionnaire responses from all education settings in the affected eras – the vast majority have no RAAC and of those that do, most are providing face-to-face education with only a small handful providing a form of remote education for a short period,” a spokesperson said.
“We have been clear that we will do whatever it takes to remove RAAC from the school and college estate.”