A recent report from the National Audit Office has uncovered that 700,000 school pupils in England are studying in schools that require major rebuilding or repair work.
38% of school buildings across the country are now past their expiry date, and the situation is at its worst across the East and West Midlands, according to the condition of school buildings report.
While there is funding available to support building repairs, an additional £2bn is required to bring all buildings up to scratch. The report also found that 15% of schools eligible for funding have not bid for essential repairs investment.
In 114 local authorities (75% of the country’s total), the average ‘condition need’ was between £1,000 and £2,000 per pupil. Condition need - that’s the cost to fix schools - is the highest in the East and West Midlands, while counties in the south of England show a less pronounced shortfall.
Condition need in counties including Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire is above the national average at £1,500 – £1,999 per pupil, while Nottinghamshire, Rutland, and Staffordshire are in the highest category with over £2,000 needed per pupil to fix school buildings. That’s the required cost - so how does it compare with the actual investment per pupil?
Not well. The Kreston Academies Benchmark Report 2023 found that average repairs and maintenance spending is far below what’s needed, as low as £116 per pupil in some MATs, with the highest average spend of only £160 per pupil. This data highlights an alarmingly large contrast between the amount of money needed to fix schools and the amount actually being spent.
The main takeaway from the report is that 700,00 pupils are learning in schools that require “major rebuilding or refurbishment” due to either “safety issues” or general condition. 24,000 school buildings nationally are now past it - or, as the report phrases it, “beyond their estimated initial design life”.
The elements in schools with the highest need for improvements are electrical and mechanical services, roofs and external walls, windows, and doors - all are key to buildings remaining usable and safe.
The DfE already believes that poor-quality school buildings negatively impact pupil attainment and teacher retention. The report emphasises how buildings being too hot or cold, having insufficient ventilation, or sometimes simply being unusable can adversely affect pupils’ experience - and those who are struggling academically or with special educational needs and disabilities are most affected.
Clearly, there are safety concerns too. The most pressing concerns are reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), system-built school buildings, and asbestos. In May 2023, the DfE announced that where RAAC is present in schools, it would provide funding to ensure that it does not pose an immediate risk. However, there is currently no specific funding in place to address the other two risks.
The good news for schools is that there is funding available for building maintenance and repairs. However, schools whose responsible bodies do not automatically receive fund allocations will need to apply to the DfE themselves, up to twice per year.
The report found that of the 2,493 schools eligible every year between 2016-17 and 2022-23, one-quarter made more than 10 applications while 15% (368 schools) made no applications at all.
Reasons why the schools most needing maintenance hadn’t applied varied between assessing their own buildings to be in good condition, being unaware of the funding or, more worryingly, lacking the capacity to make the applications - something which is a particular problem in smaller single academy trusts.
Awareness of the funding options could and should be easily addressed. Clear communication from the DfE to schools about what support is available and how to access repairs and maintenance investment is crucial to ensure those schools with the most pressing need are not left behind.
Importantly, should a communications push result in higher uptake, further funding would be needed to fill the £2bn shortfall to get all school buildings to a safe and satisfactory standard. Ensuring a simple and straightforward application process is also vital to make sure those smaller schools with fewer administrative staff are not missing out.
At Duncan & Toplis, we have a dedicated academies team that has a well-established reputation of working in partnership with academies to support, advise and guide the future of your trust, especially in such challenging times.
Get in touch with us to find out how we can help you.