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DfE to commission research into ‘future safety risks’ on crumbling school estate

Ministers hope to get ahead of the next school buildings scandal by commissioning research to uncover the “future safety risks” of the sector’s crumbling estate.

The Department for Education hopes the probe will boost its understanding of “condition issues” in school buildings, in particular those built in the post-war period.

The research is expected to include intrusive structural surveys and the DfE hopes it will yield policy recommendations on “mitigating future risks”.

A government tender documents said the plans are in the “early stages of development” and that it is “judging interest from potential suppliers”.

If it gets the go ahead, AI modelling could also be used to spot “specific types of defects experienced in older buildings” in a bid to “predict the likely nature of building deterioration”.

Modelling could also be done to “map the prevalence of future structural risks and condition issues” across schools buildings constructed between 1945 and 1990.

It comes after Schools Week revealed last year promises by ministers to inspect hundreds of post-war school buildings that are ranked alongside RAAC as a top safety concern had not been met.

DfE sees building safety as ‘key risk’

The DfE lists school building safety as one of six key risks in its latest annual report.

Its “greatest concern” are buildings constructed post-1945 using materials or designs that are “past their intended design life and could be subject to defects”.

Tim Warneford

Academy funding consultant Tim Warneford said the initiative “it can only result in greater in-depth data which will be of use to both the school and the DfE”.

“It has the potential to strengthen the hand of the DfE when presenting a far more accurate picture of the condition and costs relating to the extent of investment that the Treasury have hitherto failed to adequately invest in.”

More than 100 schools were told to immediately shut buildings that had reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in August 2023, just days before the new academic year, causing mass disruption for pupils. 

In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee warned school buildings are now one of the “big nasties” – the big spending problems that a future government must solve because of the “lack of forward thinking” of the current government.

It claimed the DfE had “failed to consider long-term value for money in school maintenance decisions. Problems with RAAC and asbestos have shown that, without a long-term plan, there is a huge impact when a problem crystalises.”

Union chief calls for more investment

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said: “While we welcome any work to improve the safety of the school estate, this does feel like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

He flagged a June 2023 National Audit Office report which found there were 700,000 pupils in buildings needed major repair work, with a £2 billion capital funding shortfall.

“We hope this research compels the DfE to correct their perpetual underinvestment in the school estate and provide all pupils and staff with buildings that are safe and fit for purpose,” he added.

The DfE last month published non-statutory guidance on managing older buildings on the schools estate. 

 A DfE spokesperson added: “We are the first government in history to survey the whole of the school estate – ensuring the safety of our pupils and staff. 

“The first Condition Data Collection survey began in 2017 and our second survey is currently under way.

“We are supporting this work further and engaging with the sector to establish a research study of older building construction types to identify future issues that could present themselves as the school estate ages.”

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