The Government’s education policy merges austerity with a deep hostility towards those working in schools and an indifference to those studying in them. These qualities have shaped the incompetent policy-making that has dominated the last thirteen years. The pandemic and its aftermath displayed this combination in disastrous technicolour, and the teacher recruitment and retention crisis provided further evidence of its effects. From this perspective, we should see the dramatic emergence of the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) scandal as a third but probably not final act.
What has long been known by unions, building experts, and civil servants has, over the past few days, become a public scandal: at the time of writing, twenty-four schools have been told to close because they have been discovered to pose a risk to life; more than a hundred have been partially evacuated. These numbers will rise.
The decay of school buildings and their potential collapse is a potent metaphor for broader government policy and has a revealing history. In May 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety highlighted the significant risk of structural failure in buildings whose construction in the mid-to-late twentieth century had involved the use of RAAC. The Department for Education (DfE) requested that all of England’s schools check whether their buildings contained RAAC. It attached no compulsion to this request and made no budgetary provision adequate to the scale of the problem. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reports that in June 2023, the DfE calculated that around £5.3 billion a year was required to maintain school buildings and deal with the most serious risks. The Treasury has allocated only around £3.1 billion, more than 40 percent below the amount civil servants judged necessary.
In these respects, RAAC is a story of cutback and complacency. It also shines a light on how the Government’s aim to privatise English schooling has had hugely damaging effects on public provision. Warwick Mansell’s ‘Education Uncovered’ website has calculated that the disclosed spend on capital costs of Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’ project in 2011-18 amounted to £1.7 billion, with the true costs being much greater than what has been disclosed. By comparison, the DfE only spent around £550 million a year on rebuilding projects across England’s entire schools estate. In other words, over the last decade, the Government sacrificed a programme of absolutely necessary public spending in favour of a massive allocation of funding to private initiatives — which have delivered nothing like the promised benefits.
Throughout this period of deliberate neglect of the public domain, the Government has spun a never-ending story about the ‘fight against disadvantage’ that it is supposedly waging. In the name of this cause, government agencies seek to influence what seems like every detail of school life. They impose a miserable and uncreative regime on schools, in which testing, draconian behaviour policies and a vicious inspection system are prominent features. Amid all this micromanagement and ideological proclamation, what the Government has failed to do is to provide our education system with the most basic necessities: education workers in adequate numbers, buildings that are safe and are a pleasure to learn and work in. If any more proof of the hollowness of the Government’s education policy is needed, the RAAC fiasco has supplied it.
RACC is both a threat to the education of thousands of children and a gift to the Labour Party: the target of government incompetence is too large to miss. But how will Labour respond to the significant financial demands of the need to repair and rebuild schools? Nearly two decades ago, Labour launched ‘Building Schools for the Future’, aimed at refurbishing or rebuilding all 3,500 secondary schools in England over fifteen years. The ambition and scale of the programme was vast; some of the schools it built were triumphs of design. (Michael Gove, of course, cancelled it.) Its dependence upon Private Finance Initiatives, however, was a flaw for which schools and councils are still paying. Most PFI repayment contracts were tied to the retail price index, meaning that refurbishment and repairs came at exorbitant costs.
If Labour is going to respond to the crisis of the school estate on the scale that is needed and without creating a mountain of debt for schools, it will need a new approach to public investment. In 2019, Labour’s manifesto pledged to establish ’a National Investment Bank, backed up by a network of Regional Development Banks, to provide £250 billion of lending for enterprise, infrastructure and innovation over ten years.’ Without a commitment of this sort to adequately fund the rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure, fundamental problems will remain. We will lose the endless incompetence of the Tories, but we will not gain a school system fit for our desperate needs.