School buildings at risk of collapse – unions write to Education Secretary

Seven education unions – Community, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite – have today written an urgent open letter (see below) to the Secretary of State for Education highlighting the shocking state of school buildings and calling upon the Government to take urgent action to make them safe and fit for the future.

Research by the House of Commons Library calculates that between 2009-10 and 2021-22, overall capital spending declined by around 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms.

Such failure to invest in the maintenance and renewal of our school estate inevitably has consequences, and the Department for Education (DfE) acknowledged the situation had reached crisis point late last year, admitting in its Annual Report that some schools are at risk of collapse.

This comes at a time when, as noted by the 2022 TUC report Schools Built for the Future, there is also an urgent need to invest in retrofitting schools to ensure that they are climate resilient and energy efficient.

The DfE does not even know which school buildings are at risk of collapse. We have asked what measures it will take to ensure it has a full and accurate picture of the school estate, what steps will be taken to eradicate the risk of collapse, including interim measures to keep pupils and staff safe, and what additional funding will be provided to ensure all school buildings are safe and fit for the future, including for asbestos removal. 

Community’s National Officer Helen Osgood said:

“The Department for Education must take swift action on this matter as the health and safety of our children and education workforce is on the line. Prompt action is needed to identify any problem buildings as a matter of urgency. The current assessments of buildings are not thorough enough, which means that currently underlying structural problems go unnoticed. Funding must be provided, so schools can ensure that the buildings they occupy do not have any major structural issues.”

Dan Shears, GMB National Health, Safety and Environment Director, said:

“These are truly appalling revelations. It’s no great surprise that schools are in poor condition – we have had a lost decade of under-investment – but to discover that schools are in danger of literally falling down is absolutely scandalous. In many ways the school system being at the point of actual collapse is the perfect metaphor for the current UK Government. The tragedy of the situation being that money which was wasted giving Tory donors inflated contracts for shoddy PPE could have been invested in bringing schools up to scratch. The money was found quickly enough during the early pandemic, and if collapsing schools aren’t an emergency, then what is?”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“This is a disaster waiting to happen, which in the worst-case scenario could end up costing lives unless the government wakes up and acts. That means demonstrating national leadership – identifying and being transparent about buildings at risk, ensuring the safety of pupils and staff using them, and implementing an urgent action plan to carry out repairs supported by a massive increase in investment. It should never have come to this, but it is little wonder when the government has halved capital funding for school buildings since 2010.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said:

“This situation is the result of years of chronic under-investment in our education system and the school buildings estate. Schools are now counting the cost of the Government’s reckless decision a decade ago to abandon the Building Schools for the Future programme. Rebuilding and refurbishment investment is at a fraction of what is required to keep pupils and staff able to learn and work safely. School staff and parents deserve and need to know if their schools are at risk and what is being done to urgently to ensure the safety of their schools.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“It is disgraceful that over the last decade of austerity our school buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that some are at risk of collapse, and the Government does not even know which buildings fall into this category. In one of the most advanced economies in the world it is shocking the many children, young people and school staff work and learn in an environment that is dangerously unsafe.”

UNISON head of education Mike Short, said:

“The government doesn’t appear to have a clue about the condition of school buildings. Sadly staff, pupils and parents know only too well that years of cuts have left classrooms and other learning facilities in a terrible state of repair. This awful situation needs fixing quickly with proper investment to make the learning environment not only safe but more comfortable for everyone too.”

Unite acting national officer Clare Keogh said:

“Children and school staff should not have to spend their days in buildings that are so dilapidated that some are at risk of collapsing. It is disgusting that the government has neglected this issue to the extent that it apparently does not even know which buildings are unsafe. Ministers and the DfE must take action to secure the safety of the school estate now.”

Further information

Buildings at risk of collapse letter (pdf)

The House of Commons Library Report – School Buildings and Capital Funding (England) – 4 January 2023 (pdf)

Schools Built for the Future, TUC, July 2022

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