Education

23.02.17

Councils face ‘significant risk’ in fixing deteriorating school estate

Local councils face “significant challenges” in providing enough places in schools as they struggle to maintain the condition of school estates whilst funds are diverted to open free schools.

In a report drawn up by the National Audit Office (NAO), it was found that a further 231,000 primary places and 189,000 secondary places will be needed between 2016 and 2021 to meet demand, and that it will cost local authorities £6.7bn to improve all school buildings to being up to “satisfactory” or “better condition”.

The report, which outlined the NAO’s concerns surrounding schools, said: “Meeting this need will be difficult because primary schools have often already been expanded where this was straightforward, and because it is more complicated to increase capacity in secondary schools as they require specialised facilities, such as science laboratories.

“The forecast deterioration in the condition of the school estate is a significant risk to long-term value for money.”

The responsibility to maintain school buildings is a power devolved to multi-academy trusts and local authorities, but some councils expressed concern that the £850m being put into opening a projected 883 free schools by 2020 will lead to current schools falling into disrepair.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, has called on the government to alter funding plans to save areas where existing schools are struggling to maintain their buildings at a high enough level.

“The Department for Education needs to spend at least £6.7 billion just to bring all school buildings up to a satisfactory state,” she added.

“But the department is choosing to open new free schools in areas which do not need them and are failing to fill places. This is taxpayers’ money that could be used to fund much-needed improvements in thousands of existing school buildings.”

Commenting on the report, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People’s Board Cllr Richard Watts also voiced concern at councils being unable to create enough school spaces in certain areas.

“Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them but are under extreme pressure to accommodate rapidly rising numbers of pupils looking for a place,” he argued.

“If we're to meet the demand for school places then existing academy schools should expand where required, or councils should be given back the powers to open new maintained schools.”

Cllr Watts also said that councils had already diverted £1bn of their own budgets to create places, a measure that is set to increase in the future with new developments and government programmes.

“If the crisis is to be dealt with properly the government must commit to funding the creation of school places and hand powers back to councils so that they can open new schools, for both primary and secondary-age pupils,” he concluded.

A DfE spokesperson also commented on the findings, saying: "As the NAO acknowledges, we have made more school places available, and in the best schools.

"The free school programme is a vital part of this – more than three quarters of free schools have been approved in areas where there is already demand for new places and the vast majority are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.

“The Government is making a huge investment in the school estate of £23 billion up to 2021, to create a further 600,000 new school places, deliver 500 new free schools, and rebuild and refurbish buildings at over 500 schools."

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