The Department for Education office in Sanctuary Buildings on Great Smith Street in London. The Department for Education office in Sanctuary Buildings on Great Smith Street in London. Photo: Sebastiandoe5 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Teacher and NEU activist Alex Snowdon examines how so many schools have been driven close to collapse

The current scandal about school-building safety is representative of a number of serious, long-term problems in education and the public sector. Over a hundred schools with Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Raac) were unable to reopen fully at the start of this term: they were either fully closed or partially evacuated.

Department for Education incompetence meant that this was badly mishandled: schools and parents only found out at the end of the summer holidays, there was confusion about exactly which schools were affected, and there has been inadequate government support for schools making alternative provision. It is thought that yet more schools will be directly affected.

These schools pose a risk to life, which is why they cannot be opened as usual. That is incredibly serious. Ensuring proper funding of school premises, combined with guaranteeing safety standards, is a core responsibility for government in relation to schools. It is absolutely basic, yet this government fails to meet even these essential requirements.

We have a government that is dedicated to micro-managing what happens in schools, using the Ofsted inspection system and a high-stakes assessment regime to ensure compliance. The government sees its role as including intervention in all sorts of school matters, but doesn’t take seriously the core responsibilities of maintaining the schools estate and guaranteeing safety.

This goes wider and deeper than the specific story of schools having to close due to Raac. Firstly, there is the long-term issue of neglect of school premises. In June, the Department for Education calculated that £5.3 billion is necessary to maintain school buildings and address safety issues. That is, in itself, testament to long-term funding failures. Yet this led to the Treasury allocating just £3.1 billion: a massive shortfall that endangers safety.

This is against the backdrop of a big fall in capital investment spending in schools. When the Tories entered government in 2010, they swiftly scrapped Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. Spending on school buildings fell steeply. This was accompanied by increasing outsourcing and privatisation.

Building Schools for the Future had been a genuinely ambitious project, aiming to rebuild or renovate all secondary schools over a fifteen-year period (this was cut short when Labour lost office in 2010). Despite the numerous problems with New Labour schools policy – a more prescriptive approach to curriculum and pedagogy, the beginnings of academies, and an obsession with high-stakes testing – there was a real commitment to increased investment in school premises. This was undermined, though, by the reliance on inefficient Private Finance Initiatives, with repayment contracts for schools and local authorities that have cast a long shadow.

Decay of public provision

Secondly, this expresses a broader problem with school funding. In education, the larger austerity project has caused damage, in particular the cuts to school funding that followed the Tories’ re-election in 2015. Union campaigning has brought about some increased investment, but not enough.

Austerity in general has been compounded by neglect of schools in particular. During the pandemic, the government consistently failed to invest in important measures like improved ventilation or online education support. It also neglected basic safety in its reluctance to accept the need for moving learning online in January 2021, until forced to do so by NEU members taking action to reduce school opening to safe levels.

School funding was a massive part of what motivated NEU teachers to take eight days of strike action last academic year. The industrial dispute was formally, and primarily, about pay, but a strong sense of wanting better funding was a huge motivator for those striking. The government failed to invest in post-pandemic recovery, from school premises to mental-health support, and the inadequate funding continues to contribute to the stress and strain exerted on school staff.

Thirdly, the question of building safety and quality goes beyond education. And this, in turn, symbolises a general crisis of social infrastructure. This is about both investment and privatisation.

Last Tuesday, NHS England instructed all hospitals in England to prepare or revise their evacuation plans in the light of concerns about Raac’s use in hospital buildings. This highlights the need for trade unions beyond education to go on the offensive in demanding urgent safety checks, and remedial action, to ensure safety for staff and service users. It also signals why a broader political commitment to putting public safety first is sorely needed, yet Labour is failing to go beyond rhetorical barbs directed at the Tories.

Privatisation of public services began under Thatcher in the 1980s. This has enriched a tiny few, while the quality of services has often been eroded. Outsourcing, private-finance initiatives and so on – under Labour and Tory governments alike – have further eroded the public sphere.

The Tory project of austerity, from 2010 onwards, made things yet worse, especially in local-government services. From library cuts to the railways, from school buildings to Sure Start closures, we have seen a decay in public provision.

Trade unions, with the National Education Union leading the way, have responded robustly to the Raac scandal. While Labour has been mealy mouthed and reluctant to promise more investment, the NEU has been unambiguous in demanding money for rebuilding schools, a wider increase in school funding and indeed a fresh approach to social infrastructure.

There is an urgent need for increased public investment – not just in school buildings, but in public infrastructure as a whole.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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