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Public Accounts Committee

Oral evidence: The condition of school buildings, HC 1338

Thursday 13 July 2023

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 13 July 2023.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Dame Meg Hillier (Chair); Olivia Blake; Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown; Ashley Dalton; Mr Mark Francois; Anne Marie Morris.

Also attended: Mr Robin Walker (Chair), on behalf of the Education Committee.

Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General, Emma Willson, Director, NAO, and Marius Gallaher, Alternate Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, were in attendance.

Questions 1 - 107

Witnesses

I: Susan Acland-Hood, Permanent Secretary, Jane Cunliffe, Chief Operating Officer, and Jane Balderstone, Capital Delivery, Department for Education.


Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General

Condition of school buildings (HC 1516, Session 2022-23)

 

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Susan Acland-Hood, Jane Cunliffe and Jane Balderstone.

Chair: Welcome to the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday 13 July 2023. We are here to discuss the really important issue of the condition of school buildings. We know that about 700,000 children in England are studying in schools that require rebuilding or major refurbishment, and that that can have an impact on pupil attainment and teacher retention. The Department for Education provides capital funding of about £5 billion each year and works with various responsible bodies—mostly local authorities and academy trusts—to help to maintain and improve the condition of school buildings, but there is a looming crisis. There is an interesting graph in the NAO’s Report—we thank them for their work—showing how many schools were built in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. So there is a looming crisis in school buildings, and the safety risks are obviously a particular concern for us.

I welcome our witnesses today. From the Department for Education, we have, of course, Susan Acland-Hood, the permanent secretary. She is joined by Jane Cunliffe, who is the chief operating officer and a first-time witness at the Committee—welcome to you, Ms Cunliffe—and Jane Balderstone, who leads on capital delivery; welcome to you for the first time as well, Ms Balderstone. And I am really delighted to welcome Robin Walker MP, who chairs the Select Committee on Education and who is guesting with us today.

We have a couple of declarations of interest.

Olivia Blake: I chair the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I am a chartered surveyor. Surveyors were involved in this condition of schools Report.

Chair: Before we go into the main session, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the deputy Chair, has some questions to ask about a previous Report that you have responded to.

Q1                Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Thank you, Chair, and good morning, Ms Acland-Hood. Our Report entitled “Support for vulnerable adolescents”, which was quite hard-hitting, said: “The…costs of adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents are unacceptably and unnecessarily high.” And we made a number of recommendations, some of which you did not accept. I would like to ask questions about why you did not accept them. In your recent Treasury minute, you said that your outcome delivery plan, which was published two years ago, includes programmes and success metrics relevant to vulnerable adolescents. How well are you performing on those programmes and against those success metrics?

Susan Acland-Hood: We were grateful for the Committee’s Report and we have not only accepted but implemented most of the recommendations since the Report was published in January. On the two we did not accept—we discussed this at some length—it was really about a difference of view on the value of taking an agglomerative approach, whereby we try to look at all the issues that might affect any vulnerable adolescent together, as against an approach whereby we look more at individual issues. The reason why we think the latter is the right approach is that when we look at the data on vulnerability, which is something that people can define differently, we find that the majority of young people experience one or two issues, but very, very few experience many. I quoted a report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which said that about a quarter of the cohort they looked at had one of eight identified needs, but that seven in 10 of those had only one of those identified needs at a time and fewer than one in 10 had three or more coinciding needs. The Government’s approach, which I think has a reasoned basis, is to focus most on trying to identify and meet those particular needs through really well designed and well specified specialist services, rather than to try to pull everything together.

In our report, we talked about measures particularly around children in need, children with special educational needs and disabilities and other vulnerabilities, like having experienced exclusion. We continue to work hard to try to make sure we are joining up the evidence on outcomes. Are you asking about the outcomes from that ODP two years ago, or about the latest information on that?

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: The latest information.

Susan Acland-Hood: It is probably best if I offer to write to the Committee and set that out in a bit more detail.

Q2                Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: That will be very helpful.

While I hear that answer, the minute disagreed with the Committee’s recommendation that DfE should take a lead on data and pathways to adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents. How can the Government make progress if there is not even a common definition of vulnerability?

Susan Acland-Hood: What we disagreed with was the suggestion that we should try to do that across every possible vulnerability in one kind of agglomerated way. We are doing a huge amount of work across Government on data and pathways, so you should not read that response to the recommendation as meaning that we are not taking the data seriously or looking at the areas of overlap.

Q3                Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: You did accept our recommendation on A&E mental health. With regard to young people seeking support for mental health issues, when might we see the promised implementation of access and standards for community and A&E mental health care?

Susan Acland-Hood: This is a recommendation for DHSC rather than us, but we work very closely with them. The key parts that are relevant to my Department, where we work particularly closely with the DHSC, have been the work both to embed really good early-stage support for mental health and wellbeing in schools and to fund every school and college to train a senior mental health lead by 2025, so that they can introduce the effective whole-school approaches that we know are really helpful in delivering early intervention, which can avoid problems escalating later. More than 13,800 schools and colleges have signed up, including more than seven in 10 secondary schools. We are also continuing to roll out mental health support teams. The first ones became operational in March 2020, and they have expanded year on year, from 287 teams in March 2022 to 398 in March 2023. We expect to reach 500 by April 2024.

Again, this is not quite my baby, but I will bring it to you for helpfulness; the NHS long-term plan beyond that commits to increasing investment in mental health services by at least £2.3 billion a year by March 2024. That translates into an additional 345,000 children and young people able to access NHS-funded mental health support. On A&E access in particular, they are scaling up work through their urgent and emergency care recovery plan, which involves scaling up community teams, expanding virtual wards, investing in 800 new ambulances, including 100 specialised mental health ambulances, and embedding mental health professionals in all emergency operations centres. They are also delivering the commitment to make urgent mental health support available universally via NHS 111. It is already available through all-age 24/7 urgent mental health lines, which are in place in each area, but I think the Department recognises that those numbers may be harder to find than trying to link through 111.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Thank you for that very full answer. I am sure we want to return to this serious problem, but time is beating us today.

Chair: Thank you, Ms Acland-Hood. We are, as a Committee, determined to watch this. As a cross-cutting Government issue, we think we have a role to play along with our sister Committee and other Committees. Very briefly, Ms Olivia Blake MP.

Q4                Olivia Blake: I want to ask a question about academisation orders. A school in my constituency had an inadequate rating and subsequent academisation order. It has since been re-inspected and found to be good in all areas, which is obviously an amazing achievement for the pupils, staff and parents at the King Edward VII school, but the risk of academisation is still hanging over the school after it has done an incredible amount of work to get back on track. Is there anything more, other than the guidance that was re-released in the autumn, to help streamline the approach where schools move away from the reason that they were subject to the academisation order? Do you have a view of how schools should be able to challenge that process if they are found to be good?

Susan Acland-Hood: Typically, we would expect our regional directors to be working very closely with schools under those circumstances and to be responding to the findings of the new Ofsted report. We do not go quite as far as making a sort of automatic flip back to a reversion of academisation, because sometimes there are wider circumstances that mean that people may agree that it is in the interest of the school to keep going ahead. I am aware of this case, and I would expect a very sensible, thoughtful conversation with the regional director to be had.

Chair: Thank you very much, Ms Blake. We are going to move into the main session now. I will pick up on the other issues we were discussing later on, at a more appropriate moment. I will ask Mr Mark Francois MP to kick off.

Q5                Mr Francois: Thank you, Chair. Ms Acland-Hood, I have had some experience of both the RAAC issue and the asbestos issue, because schools in my constituency have been affected. We have two parallel issues here. King Edmund, a secondary school in my patch, has been affected, and now Hockley Primary School is unfortunately closed because of the RAAC issue. Let’s do RAAC first. How many schools in England are now closed because of RAAC?

Susan Acland-Hood: I will ask Jane to reply.

Jane Balderstone: At the moment, we are working very hard to get to the point where we have surveyed schools by the autumn. We are aiming to survey 600 schools by the autumn, and as part of that process, we are working very closely with schools to minimise the disruption. You refer to a school in your constituency that we are obviously aware of, and we are working with the responsible body to minimise the disruption. It is a changing picture, as you can imagine. There is a range of circumstances in terms of the impact of finding RAAC in a school. In some cases, it is a very small, isolated incident—in a store cupboard, for example. In other cases, there is a much wider impact across the school, so we are working very closely with the responsible bodies to minimise any educational impact.

Q6                Mr Francois: That is all very helpful, but what is the current number of schools that are closed? I think there are two in Essex that are closed: one in my patch and one near Manningtree. That is two in one county. How many are there across England?

Jane Balderstone: The wider picture is that where school buildings are affected, there may be one or more buildings in a school that are closed, but not the whole school. We are not aiming to give a commentary as we are working with those schools that are closing, given the impact for those schools and because we are still understanding the data. We will provide an update on that in autumn.

Q7                Mr Francois: I understand that it’s about 60 across England, but the number is going up. There are clearly safety implications here. You are basically doing a Domesday book survey of the condition of schools to look for this. If it becomes a wider problem and we are talking about hundreds of schools, do you have an allocation in the DfE budget to address that, or would you have to go to the Treasury for more resources?

Susan Acland-Hood: I don’t recognise 60 as the number of closed schools, and we have no schools at the moment where children are not receiving face-to-face education. That is the first thing I would say.

We are as rapidly as possible doing a really comprehensive survey of any school that suspects it has RAAC. What we have agreed with the Treasury and others is a menu of ways of responding to that, which includes the ability to use existing capital funding, including to un-ringfence things and translate underspends, to address non-whole rebuild-type condition responses. Also, we have 500 slots in the school rebuilding programme, of which 400 have schools identified, which were announced. That gave us 100 slots remaining, which we kept partly because we thought we might need them to respond to things like this. We always allocate those based on priority, and where we have a RAAC rebuilding need, we expect that would be very high priority. So we do have that spare capacity.

Q8                Mr Francois: That is a very clear explanation. Do you think that those 100 “reserved slots”, for want of a better expression, will be enough to deal with the RAAC problem, or do you fear that it may grow beyond that?

Jane Cunliffe: The honest answer is we are still in the middle of our phase of identification. We are doing the 600 surveys and, as Jane said, how much it impacts on the school is very variable. For example, for the school in your constituency, it is the whole roof, so it obviously does mean that the whole school is affected. There are different ways to address that, depending on the structure and the condition of the rest of the building: it might be that you could replace the roof; it might be that it needs a full rebuild. What Jane’s team are doing at the moment is working with all the schools where we identify it, to work out whether it is a small issue that can be addressed quite quickly, or whether it is a larger issue. Where it is a larger issue, we need to work out whether it needs refurbishment or rebuilding.

Q9                Mr Francois: Just for the record, Hockley Primary is part of the Academies Enterprise Trust, and other schools in Hockley are also part of that trust. They have rallied round brilliantly, and I think the parents are grateful, so a hat-tip to them. That is RAAC, but we still need to understand the scope. When you have completed your survey, if you could provide the Committee with some numbers, We would find that very helpful.

Let’s move on to asbestos, which is potentially an even wider problem. We found asbestos at King Edmund when we knocked down a block that was affected by RAAC. I have had asbestos 101, I suppose you could say. As I understand it, there are different types of asbestos and different colours, and some are potentially more dangerous than others. It is normally safe if you do not disturb it, but if it is disturbed, it crumbles and fibres get into the air, that is potentially when things can become quite dangerous. Is that broadly accurate?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes.

Q10            Mr Francois: Good—we are always tight for time so a yes will do.

What is your plan for asbestos, as opposed to your plan for RAAC? If you were to try and remove every ounce of asbestos from every school in England, we are talking probably not billions but trillions. If it is undisturbed, it is safe, but do you have a long-term action plan to deal with asbestos?

Susan Acland-Hood: We do and I am going to ask Jane to speak about that. Before we do, I wanted to say on behalf of the Department that we were very sorry about what happened at King Edmund. It should not have happened the way it did. Our expectation of our contractors is that they do a thorough asbestos survey before they do the types of works that were done. I cannot say much more about it because, as a result of that, there may be some litigation.

Mr Francois: I understand.

Susan Acland-Hood: I wanted to say to the parents and pupils at King Edmund, on behalf of the Department, that we are really sorry that that happened in that school. We are learning lessons from it as well and working with our contractors.

Q11            Mr Francois: My constituents will be grateful. I do not want to get into the litigious side of it, but part of the problem—this is relevant to us all—was that they thought they knew where the asbestos was, but when they demolished the block, they found lots of asbestos that they did not even know was there. That is a real problem. Thank you for what you have said. On behalf of my constituents and the school, thank you. They will be grateful. What is your long-term plan?

Jane Cunliffe: It is not our policy to remove all asbestos in the school estate. As you have said, it would be very expensive and it can be very dangerous to remove asbestos, as we have discovered in that case. The Health and Safety Executive is the regulator for asbestos and its advice is that it is safer, if it is well managed and under good condition, to remain in situ.

We issue separate guidance to schools on managing asbestos in schools. That includes a step-by-step guide to what schools and responsible bodies should have in place, which includes the survey of where the asbestos is and management plan training for staff. We work closely with the HSE to see how well responsible bodies are adhering to that guidance. As part of our condition data collection 2—the second round, which is under way—we are asking the surveyors to carry out assurance on that asbestos management, so we can follow up quickly with responsible bodies. There can be consequences through the HSE regulation if responsible bodies are not managing it well.

That said, where asbestos is in a school that otherwise shows a deteriorating condition, it can be an issue. Sixty-seven of the 400 schools already selected for the school rebuilding programme have asbestos as one of the issues, which is why they have ended up in the programme. Where schools are not able to manage it because of their condition, we would expect to address that, either through the general condition funding, or through rebuilding if it is alongside other structural issues.

Q12            Mr Francois: Good. I take it you have learned lessons from King Edmund. We will leave that case there because there may be litigation.

Because it is such a big issue, there has been a lot of media interest in this lately. Can you provide the Committee with a similar note for your plan for asbestos in parallel with the one you have already kindly agreed to provide us with for RAAC? That way, we can track both issues in parallel, rather than just one. Is that possible?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes, that is possible, and we can also give data when we get the results of the condition data collection and see how that asbestos assurance management process is getting on.

Mr Francois: Asbestos is also an issue in this place, by the way. Thank you, Chair.

Chair: Thank you, Mr Francois. I will bring in Robin Walker MP, who is guesting with us today.

Q13            Mr Walker: Thank you for having me, Chair. Following up on Mark’s question on the RAAC surveys, you said you want to survey around 600 schools by the end of the autumn. The information the Committee has was that about 196 had been done so far. Is that up to date and is the programme there to be able to get most of them done over the summer?

Jane Balderstone: Yes. We have done more than 300 now. There is a survey happening every two hours in a school. We have ramped up to work over the summer. Obviously, we are monitoring that very closely to ensure that that happens with our contractors, but we are on track at the moment.

Q14            Chair: The issue of asbestos is something that this Committee has had concerns about before. I just want to pick up on the point you just made, Ms Cunliffe, about the 67 of the 400 schools that are in the funding programme. In a response to me in the House the other week, the Schools Minister said that asbestos would be considered as a criterion for funding. In the past, we have had concerns that asbestos is identified and then there is no money to deal with it, so there is not a massive incentive on governing bodies to find it if they cannot spend. Is there a plan to make sure that every building with dangerous asbestos is getting money from this fund?

Jane Cunliffe: If the asbestos survey and the management plan show that it is in poor condition or is dangerous, there are a range of ways that that could be funded. Schools get devolved formula capital themselves. That is a small amount, but if it was a small issue—for example, quite a lot of asbestos is lagging in boiler pipes—it might be a small issue to remove that. Obviously, the costs of the work can be a bit higher, because of the protection that is needed.

There is also the school condition allocations and the condition improvement funding. Again, if it is a smaller issue about asbestos that needs to be removed, there are examples in all those funding streams where it can be removed. Then, as we said, there is the school rebuilding programme, where we have taken that into account. With those 67, it is usually alongside other structural issues, such as system builds and things, which the NAO covers in its Report. We believe that where it has become a problem and where it is very difficult for the school to manage, there are avenues to resolve that through the condition and rebuilding funding.

Q15            Chair: Let us pursue this a bit more. If I was sitting now as a governor of a school, and we had got as far as doing a condition survey—I will get to the ones that haven’t in a moment—how quick would it be? There are timetables for the different funds that you have to bid for. You are trying to perhaps wrap it around other capital expenditure, as you say. You may have been putting aside reserves, and there are all sorts of other plans that you have in place: you have to deal with the decanting and temporary accommodation—all those challenges that are practical for a school on the ground running this project. If I was sitting here as a governor now, with dangerous asbestos in my school, how quickly would the money be available from the Department so that the school could plan to remove it?

Susan Acland-Hood: It is really important to start from the fact that this is the responsibility of the responsible body—the school—so the starting point should not be that, as soon as you have an asbestos issue, the answer is additional funding from the Department.

Q16            Chair: No, but we know the state of school funding as it is, and we know the challenge of schools finding money to do anything. Dealing with asbestos is hugely expensive.

Susan Acland-Hood: Indeed. But the first question is whether it can be done through the responsible body’s own resource. For example, one of the reasons that we give the school condition allocations to groups of schools is that we know that capital spend is lumpy and sometimes unexpected, and that helps people to deal with those more lumpy and unexpected things.

We have an overarching principle across all our work across the estate: if there is something that is putting students or teachers in danger that the school cannot manage itself, we will act immediately. That is not just asbestos. For example, if somebody identifies a very serious structural problem—cracks start appearing in the ceiling or whatever—and the responsible body cannot address it itself, we have a system for responding. To be clear, the first part of the response is to check that the school cannot sensibly address it itself—otherwise, we would be setting up some peculiar incentives—but we never, ever leave children and teachers in a school that we know to be unsafe.

Q17            Chair: We know that undisturbed asbestos is often not dangerous. There is a graph in the NAO Report that shows when schools were built, which shows that a lot of schools with this problem are coming to an interesting stage. Figure 3 highlights when schools were built, and that bulge from 1951 to 1980 is quite marked. They are now quite ageing schools.

So you have many buildings at the end of their design life, and you have the limited funding issues. How confident are you that they can actually maintain themselves enough to make sure, pre-emptively, that asbestos is not getting into a dangerous state? What you have just described as an emergency situation is something that we would all want to avoid for the sake of pupils, teachers and, indeed, the taxpayer.

Susan Acland-Hood: One of the things we have tried to retain across all our capital funding is ensuring that we have enough maintenance funding—so, £1.8 billion of maintenance funding is going out into schools this year. As the NAO Report puts it very clearly and well, we worry about schools that are beyond the end of their design life, but they can be in very good condition. The question is how well they have been maintained. It is often true that they need more maintenance if they are out of the end of their design life.

The other thing that is really clear from the graph in the NAO Report is that we see more condition need not in our older schools, interestingly, but in that middle-old group built in the’60s, ’70s and ’80s. We use the condition data collection that we have described to try to make sure that we are looking at the condition of the estate as a whole. We grade components across the estate, so not a whole school but a piece of the school.

In CDC1, 65% of all the components that were graded across the estate were graded A, which means in really good condition. Another 31% were graded at B, which is satisfactory, 2.1% at C and only 0.3% of all components across the school estate at D. We also look at what we call core components, which are those that are most critical to the successful running of the school. There we see slightly fewer in very good condition—59.5%—but again only 2% graded at C and 0.3% at D. Overall, the vast majority of the school estate is in good condition, but of course we really worry—even 0.3% is a large number of schools and pupils.

What we have been doing through CDC2 is looking particularly hard at those schools were components were graded D. Those are the ones that we worry about the most. We are partway through CDC2, but we have front-ended the most worrying schools. What we are seeing is that in the vast majority of cases, where a school had a component graded at D in CDC1, that has been remediated now that we are coming around to CDC2.

In effect, we are checking whether we are able to address those pieces in worse condition. The thing that is challenging is that we are always in the business of having to prioritise. I know that schools and responsible bodies feel that too. The risk is that we are addressing known issues, but it is tight for people to do things—

Q18            Chair: The CDC data looks at the overall condition, but there has been a problem, hasn’t there? Ms Cunliffe, you have been leading on the issue of getting in the specialists who will need to do the invasive surveys and structural assessments, particularly with some of the system-built blocks. That is an issue, and cladding is an issue—there is an awful lot of demand on those experts. How are you doing at making sure that you can procure the specialists needed to do the work? What support are you giving schools on that? Is that your role, or do you see it as something that schools ought to deal with?

Jane Cunliffe: For system-built blocks, we have certain types of system build with known structural issues—with Laingspan and Intergrid, we have all known examples of those in the school rebuilding programme. There are others where, with the help of responsible bodies, we are looking to see what other system builds might have structural issues, including where they have asbestos. We plan to carry out a research study, which the NAO referred to, to see what those structural issues are and to inform us what maintenance they might need.

Q19            Chair: How are you doing at getting specialists in to do the work?

Jane Cunliffe: It is tricky because of the asbestos and because the survey is invasive. We are working with some responsible bodies to set that up—to procure the specialists and the asbestos management that need to go alongside even doing the surveys—and are in active procurement for it at the moment. We hope to start that research study soon, but it has taken a little longer than expected, partly because of the need to manage the asbestos while even doing those invasive surveys. We hope to start that as soon as we can get through the procurement.

Q20            Chair: What is the timeframe for doing that work?

Jane Cunliffe: I have not got an exact timeframe yet, because we are in the middle of trying to identify the contractors for the survey and the asbestos management to go alongside that.

Q21            Chair: But once you start that work—surely you must have done some modelling for how long it would take them to do the work, once you have gone through procurement and got them lined up to do it. We have seen with the cladding issue—I speak with some feeling, because a lot of people in my constituency have that cladding and I have lived through it, so I should declare it—that it has taken longer than people expected. Many blocks have not been able to get started on the work. You have the whole school estate in England, which is quite a lot of buildings, so how long do you think it will take?

Jane Cunliffe: For this research project, as we are calling it, we aim to do about 200, so it is not as extensive. We are already addressing the system builds where we know there are issues, but this is really a research project to assess whether there are issues in other types of system build, so we do not think it will take long. Obviously, we need to discuss that with the contractors. It may be that we have to do a lot of it in the school holidays because it is quite invasive and because of the asbestos risk. Once we have appointed a contractor, we will get into the details of the timing.

Q22            Chair: Because of your point about holidays, is next summer realistically the earliest you would start any work?

Jane Cunliffe: There are other holidays, so it might be that we could do it in those. It is a structural survey, which does not necessarily need the longest school holiday to do it in.

Q23            Chair: You will get the structural surveys done, and then you might find what the problems are. Then, because of the nature of the system build, you might have to procure nationally because it would be more cost-effective to do that.

Jane Cunliffe: I think what we would do is take this 200 as a sample, and then ask what the issues are with those other types of system builds. We have addressed the ones that we know about. We then need to look at whether we need to prioritise those in our capital funding going forward, by, for example, working with responsible bodies that have those types of schools if we find that there are other structural issues. To reassure the Committee, where we have known structural issues in system builds, we are addressing those. What we are doing during this research project is checking on the other types with our technical standards team to see if there are others we should be prioritising in that funding.

Q24            Chair: This is a point for Ms Acland-Hood. On the role of responsible bodies, we have had some evidence from the Catholic Education Service, saying that it is frustrated that Catholic multi-academy trusts would be treated as a responsible body—as any academy trust would be—but the education service itself, or the diocesan boards, cannot take on that role. Is that something that got missed in legislation? Why is that the case? It seems a bit odd.

Susan Acland-Hood: It relates to the clarity of the relationships we would expect the responsible body to have with the schools. What we are trying to do through the responsible body work is ensure that the responsible body can sensibly aggregate and prioritise, and that it is not just dividing by the number of schools and handing out. That does not meet the purpose of the school condition allocation, which is to allow people to prioritise and meet the greatest need. It is something that we are talking to the Catholic Education Service about, and we are working to try to resolve it. Essentially, it is about whether it has the relationship with its schools that is needed.

Q25            Chair: I have to say that it sounds like you are dancing on a pinhead. They have given examples in their evidence, but I have seen as a constituency MP how voluntary aided schools—not just the Catholic ones but others—have had a good relationship with either the London Diocesan Board for Schools or the Catholic Education Service where there has been value added by that higher-level survey work and expertise. That can mean that the schools get economies of scale by that work being delivered. Is there a likely resolution to this issue? It seems to me that it could be saving taxpayers’ money, so it seems a bit odd that we are not doing it.

Susan Acland-Hood: We are in discussions with them. There is also lots of progress being made on developing academy trusts with them, so we are addressing it from both ends.

Q26            Chair: That was a slight segue. I want to go back to asbestos, which is an abiding concern of mine. I have a constituent whose mother died a year after retirement because she worked in a classroom with asbestos. It is a real issue for teachers and pupils. We have been talking to the Department, and to your predecessor and you, Ms Acland-Hood, about asbestos. You started surveying schools in 2018, and we have been talking to you about it since before then. Ms Cunliffe, 7% of schools have not responded to the asbestos survey. Why not and what are you doing about it?

Jane Cunliffe: We are chasing up the 7% of schools. As I mentioned, through the condition data collection we are following up in a very detailed way with the surveyors who go out to each of the schools to carry out the visual survey in order to do the asbestos assurance process. We also work closely with HSE, which will enforce any schools, responsible bodies and duty holders across the economy that are not meeting those responsibilities. We take it very seriously, because we need to know that the asbestos is being well managed.

Q27            Chair: Is there a patten to what schools are not responding? Are they smaller? Are they in certain parts of the country? Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Jane Cunliffe: No, there isn’t a pattern. With CDC2, as Susan said, we have prioritised schools that were in poorer condition in the first wave of the surveys. We have done about 40%. If they have dangerous levels of asbestos, they would have been seen already by one of the surveyors and had the asbestos assurance management carried out. All schools will get copies of their reports from CDC2. We do not wait until the end of the programme; they get them as soon as they are ready.

Susan Acland-Hood: In that prioritisation we have also focused on the asbestos non-responders. The number of non-responders when the portal closed in November 2021 was 6.7%. That is now down to 4.4%, through the ones that we have been pushing through CDC2. We have also shared the details of all of the non-responders with our regional teams who hold those relationships with the schools, who are following up with them as well.

Q28            Chair: You bring me to the regional teams. One of the interesting things in London at the moment is that we are seeing a severe drop in school rolls and a lot of schools closing. In a neighbouring borough to mine, I believe they are going to lose 13 classes of pupils over the next year or so. In my own constituency, two primary schools are going through a consultation on closure. This is a real issue biting people. Regional school commissioners and regional directors are reporting directly to the Department and are supposed to have oversight of schools. What role are they playing in decisions about school closures? You have buildings in poor condition, falling rolls and schools closing. Is there any connection between the work of Ms Balderstone and Ms Cunliffe and the regional school commissioners and the school roll issues?

Susan Acland-Hood: Regional directors do not typically play a strong role in school closure decisions. For maintained schools, the lead is with local authorities who retain the responsibility for sufficiency. They are always happy to engage and join in discussions. Again, we are always happy to work with council schools and others in helping to look at that. You are right. There is a concatenation of issues around places and conditions. We are also looking at opportunities for thinking about different ways of using school space. In some places we are seeing people thinking about opportunities for more childcare and early years provision in primary school sites or opportunities for more special and AP provision, which we know is—

Q29            Chair: But the key thing here is that you have schools that are closing and schools in poor condition. Is there any cut-across?

Jane Balderstone: I would just add that as part of the school rebuilding programme selection process, before a school was prioritised for the programme, we considered the pupil numbers for that building, so we would not have selected a school where there were significant pupil number issues that did not warrant a full rebuild. It was absolutely part of the process. Subsequently, there are a number of schools that have been prioritised for the programme but need to understand the level of pupil numbers that they will rebuild to. We work very closely with the regions group, regional directors and the responsible bodies to determine the pupil numbers required for the rebuild. It is absolutely part of our decision making when we deliver central products.

Susan Acland-Hood: As a matter of policy, we don’t direct school closure or merger from Whitehall.

Q30            Chair: I appreciate that. Calling them “creatures” makes them sound awful, but you have this odd construct set up with regional school commissioners. As MPs, we do not have much contact with them. It is a very odd sort of role. They are now rightly named as directors because they report to the Department. They have oversight of what is going on in an area, but it seems there is no connection, so you could have schools closing for roll reasons but moving into a building that has condition issues. You might not be putting money into a school with dropping numbers, but locally they could be putting children into a school that has not got a dropping roll but has major challenges in the building, which will then cause further disruption if that building needs work later down the line. It seems there is no joining up of this. That is surely something that the regional directors ought to look at.

Susan Acland-Hood: Again, it goes to the responsibility. As I say, as a matter of policy we do not dictate school closures from Whitehall. We leave that to—

Chair: I’ve heard that. We know that and we are not suggesting you should.

Susan Acland-Hood: The responsibility for the condition also sits with the responsible body, so that is brought together. As I say, the regional director will always be happy to offer advice, to join up, to help people make those connections. In a way, you are right. If we did do a giant central command and control thing, in some ways it might be more straightforward to put those together.

Q31            Chair: We are talking about a dichotomy. I am not suggesting that you move from local to central control—just a bit more co-ordination. Let us take London as an example. We have schools on borough boundaries. You could have closures or amalgamations that do not necessarily make sense locally, and there is no requirement necessarily for the schools to work together. We have seen waves of school closures happen and then a couple of years later another wave happens, and then we have to ask what we are going to do with the buildings. In many cases, these are taxpayer assets that you are funding.

Jane Cunliffe: Can I just add that we work really closely with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services as well, and we have been working with them really closely on RAAC, for example, because they have the responsibility for place planning? They usually have really good links with the academies in their area and they would be the ones making lots of the decisions, as the permanent secretary says, about school closures.

You’re right that there needs to be that locally based, joined-up approach on condition and places, so we work really closely with the ADCS, as does the regions group, to look at the sufficiency.

Can I just make one more comment on demographics? We have been looking at historical lessons from when the population bulge started in the 2000s, and you are right that, prior to that, we had closed some schools that then we needed again, so we’re being really careful about that now and working with local authorities on it to ask, “What is the right level of correction we need for demographics?” There is always uncertainty about demographic projections, so we are working through that issue at the moment quite carefully.

Q32            Chair: In my borough, there are a lot of free schools and academies—well, not many free schools; a few free schools, but a lot of academies—all with their own decisions on admissions. When we are looking at closures, very often the local education authority has relatively few schools that it controls. So you have got this pick and mix of schools. The local education authority is responsible for sufficiency, as you call it, Ms Acland-Hood, but it doesn’t actually have control over most of the schools.

We have seen free schools built in my area, with one primary school—it is doing very well, but with a 650 roll—and yet we are seeing others close, because their rolls are dropping, and some of those sites were very expensive in capital terms. With one in the constituency of my neighbouring MP in Walthamstow, the Department spent £33 million of taxpayers’ money on an old Thames Water site, which is contaminated land, has never had planning permission and is still sitting on your books. I have heard that it may not be worth that much—maybe £20 million, but I don’t know. I can’t verify those figures; I haven’t been able to. This is a lot of moving parts in the capital budget that could be invested in the school buildings that have problems.

Again, where is the oversight of this, from your regional schools directors and indeed from the Department? You may not be controlling it locally—quite rightly, on one level—but you need to have some oversight, so you can see if there are any perverse decisions being made, surely.  

Susan Acland-Hood: It is really important that we are always aware of and thinking about some of those kind of trade-offs and choices between things. Ideally, you want more school places than there are children if you support some parental choice in this system. The free schools programme was partly about trying to give entry to people who had different ideas and visions about how schools might be run, and offer that wider range of choice in the system. There is a tension between running a perfectly efficient system and offering that spare capacity that allows for choice, and we do—

Q33            Chair: Spare capacity is just not affordable locally, is it?

Susan Acland-Hood: There are a set of really thoughtful choices that need to be made about that, and those are things we sit and discuss with Ministers regularly. There is a balance that we have to try and strike between those things, and which, again, Ministers are really thoughtful about.

As Jane says, there is also something about the fact that sometimes you want to keep a bit of spare capacity. There is spare capacity in the system that can drive choice and quality, and sometimes you also want a bit of spare capacity because you are looking ahead to where the demographic movement might come. Ministers tend to be a bit cautious about trying to go for a minimum spare capacity approach.

However, I agree with you that it is important that we keep these things under review. We look quite hard at those choices and trade-offs, and at what they would mean. In the most recent set of free school waves, we have not approved any mainstream free school where there wasn’t a basic need for the places that it was creating, so Ministers’ judgment on that has shifted a bit over time.

Chair: Good, because it needed to—sorry, my personal comment on that.

Susan Acland-Hood: May I just say one more thing about the regional directors? We didn’t change their title because they were becoming more directive; we changed it because their role has expanded beyond schools. They look after our work on special educational needs and disability, and children’s social care, and create a more joined-up interface with the local area.

Chair: They seem very remote to most of us as MPs because they cover such large areas, but that’s a comment perhaps rather than a moment for the Committee.

Q34            Mr Walker: Ms Acland-Hood, you just mentioned special schools and mainstream schools within that, and obviously that is becoming a diminishing proportion, and I very much welcome the decision to prioritise spending on special educational needs. Demographically, there is clearly a need there. However, is there a strategic process of looking at how you balance that demographic challenge that the Chair referred to with the significant increase in demand for special educational needs places? Talking of schools in some areas that may be closing, is there an opportunity in that to look at converting use and focusing on SEN provision, which is currently too thin?

Susan Acland-Hood: Yes, absolutely.

Q35            Mr Walker: Who is managing that process? Is that a role that the regional directors are overseeing, or is that something that is up to local authorities to drive?

Susan Acland-Hood: It principally sits with local authorities. There is a set of things we are doing on special and AP provision, including the additional capital funding that we put in at the last spending review, recognising the growing need for special and AP places. Quite a lot of the work we are doing through the safety valve and delivering better value programmes involves a co-ordinated conversation between the Department and local authorities, which would involve the regional directors and their teams, to look at how more effectively maintained local provision could help authorities to avoid use of what is typically significantly more expensive—

Mr Walker: Or out of county.

Susan Acland-Hood—independent or out-of-area provision. There is an active process for having those conversations. It is local authorities that lead, but again as part of the work in the special needs Green Paper and implementation plan, we are looking at drawing those things we have seen work successfully through delivering better value and the safety valve into the structure of the system more broadly for the future.

Q36            Mr Walker: Is there a spend-to-save argument about being able to do more of that? Obviously, you have a finite programme both in terms of free schools and the overall capital budget, and you got less than was asked of the Treasury for both. Do you feel you could deliver better value for money in the long run if more capital were available for those free schools?

Susan Acland-Hood: I would never say no to that. I am absolutely sure we could deliver better value for money if we had larger programmes across a wide range of areas, but I also completely appreciate the job the Treasury has to do in making very difficult prioritisation decisions across a large number of people who would say that to them. On high needs, in particular, we made a good case to the Treasury, and we did get some additional funding at the last spending review. We are also looking hard at the pace and phasing of that, because it is also true that the faster we can deliver, the more we can save.

Jane Cunliffe: On the safety valve and delivering better value, they are in effect invest to save. They are about where you create provision in maintained schools and extra special school places so that it reduces the need for high needs funding for independent special schools and out-of-area placements. They are structured in that way with the local authority. We will invest some capital and some revenue to help them to create those extra places and a better range of choices to meet what is in children’s EHCPs, and then over time that will become more affordable within their high needs block of funding.

Q37            Mr Walker: Is cost of transport a factor in those calculations, or because that comes from a different part of the local authority budget, does it get—

Jane Cunliffe: It is, because often not only the cost of the independent special school, but the cost of transport is really difficult for local authorities and causes lots of issues. Obviously, the greater choice and provision closer to where children live, through things like the safety valve and the delivering better value funding ,will reduce the costs there. They are structured in a way that does that, so that the profile is an invest-to-save profile. It has worked very well in the early areas where we have worked with them.

Chair: We might come back to some of that later, on the cost of places in non-special schools, but I want to move on now.

Q38            Olivia Blake: I want to ask a couple of questions about asbestos. You mentioned that you assess whether a school has the resources to contain the asbestos. Can you tell me more about how you would make that assessment?

Susan Acland-Hood: I was talking about when a school contacts us to say they have an urgent condition issue and they cannot manage it themselves. Those are quite bespoke moments; it does not happen a huge amount. What we will do is go and—very quickly—spend time in the school, understand what the issue is and understand why they do not feel they have the resources to manage it. It is a bit difficult to describe specifically in relation to asbestos, because we would do it differently according to the circumstances of the issue and the school.

Q39            Olivia Blake: My concern is that if any had been rejected for funding, do you do any follow-up to that request, say, a year later to check that the school has actually been able to deliver it themselves?

Jane Balderstone: The process would be that we would have a conversation with the responsible body to understand the request and exactly what it is asking for. We would not then follow up and say, “Have you been able to do that?”, but we would have assured ourselves in the conversation that we thought we had the capacity, capability and funding to do that. They could, of course, return to us to have a further conversation; it is not a closed book, one-off thing. In some cases, there are regular conversations.

Q40            Olivia Blake: Many of the schools in my area are struggling with their boilers at the moment. If you go back to a school and say, “You’ve got a safety-critical issue that you need to solve and you’ve got a boiler that you need to fix,” how is the school meant to balance that need, given the implications of not fixing the boiler? Do you think that following up on these issues and requests for extra funding would help you to get a fuller view of the condition of schools?

Jane Balderstone: It is certainly true that responsible bodies will need to prioritise their capital funding and work through exactly when to do certain projects—that is part of the system. We do have regular conversations with certain responsible bodies who need more support than others. Obviously, we are sitting in a central Government Department and working through that system, so where we have assessed that the responsible body has the capacity and capability to manage something, we do not take the view that it would be useful to follow up on that.

Jane Cunliffe: We know that boilers are often a big issue for schools, particularly in terms of emissions and energy costs, so last year we did give a grant of £500 million of additional capital to enable some boiler replacements. For all the new schools we are building, we build them net zero and operate ground source heat pumps. We have now opened the first few, so we are getting lots of information and good results from those. We do recognise that it is a big issue. They would have the additional grant we gave last year. They could also fund it through the school condition allocation, or they could bid for the condition improvement fund if they are a smaller school or trust. Boiler replacement is quite common, and there are different routes available for that.

Q41            Olivia Blake: To follow up on your not having a timeline for when the contracts will be let for some of the work that is going forward, do you think that there has been a bit of a challenge placed on your programmes as a result of the wider building safety issues that we are having and people wanting to have a lot of this work being done in many different types of buildings at the moment?

Jane Cunliffe: We have not noticed that particular challenge. What we have noticed, particularly on the school rebuilding programme, is that it has taken us longer to get into contract, but that is because of the inflationary pressures on the building industry. According to the NAO Report, we have been quite successful in reducing the cost of our school rebuilding programmes over the past 10 years, and that has been achieved through some quite tight contract management and cost control. We have had to work with our construction firms on our frameworks, because they are obviously facing big increases in material costs and labour costs over the last couple of years. That is the challenge we have found. It has taken us slightly longer to get into contract on the school rebuilding programme, but once we are in contract, we are delivering more quickly than we expected. I would say that is the broader challenge that we have noticed in our programmes.

Q42            Olivia Blake: How about surveyors?

Jane Cunliffe: We seem to have been able to get surveyors. Obviously, for RAAC, we have ramped that survey programme up really quickly and, as Jane said, it is slightly ahead of schedule. Also on RAAC, there are only certain types of surveyors and surveying firms that we have been able to use, because it is so specialist to spot whether it has a structural deficiency. That was something we were worried about, but actually we have been able to get that capacity. As Jane said, surveys are ongoing every day at the moment. We were worried about it, but actually we are pleased with the rate at which we have been able to manage that central survey programme for RAAC. 

Q43            Olivia Blake: You are doing a huge number of surveys on lots of different elements at the moment. What assurance are you doing on the quality of the assessments that you are getting back, and what mechanisms do you have to make sure they are of a high standard and good quality?

Jane Balderstone: In relation to RAAC, we have a set of structural engineers internally who have a process for quality assuring those returns, both at the company level and then internally, and we are really confident that it is a very robust process. For the school rebuilding programme, and for the assessments that we made of people who submitted applications and nominations through the exceptional route, we had a very strong monitoring and QA process in place to check and confirm that we were happy with the results, because obviously that was extremely important to do.  

Jane Cunliffe: On the condition data collection 2, we have learned from data collection 1, and we have improved the quality assurance, the consistency and the communications with the schools about when the surveyors are coming in and what the report will show. That is one of the improvements we have made between the two programmes. It is not that we had big concerns about CDC1—we still think that is a good data set—but we thought we would look at making sure that was as robust as possible, because we use that data as part of our funding allocation. We want it to be consistent across the country. It is a huge, huge survey programme with lots of different firms and we are not aware of any other countries that do one so big, so consistency is key.

Susan Acland-Hood: Let me give you a little more on that. We use trained professionals. We have QA tools, we audit a 5% sample with a critical error threshold of 0.75% and the current cumulative error rate is 0.15%. The Office of Government Property reviewed our quality assurance processes for CDC2 and commented that: “The systems and processes developed for the CDC2 programme are the most comprehensive and well designed that the reviewer has ever seen for this type of data collection, and they set the benchmark for the collection of public sector data and will be recommended for wider use across the public sector portfolio.” So we are pretty happy with them.

Jane Balderstone: It is something we think a lot about because it is important, so we work hard at it.

Q44            Olivia Blake: On transparency, the Minister said in May that the condition surveys would be published this term. I have not been able to find that yet and we are coming to the end of term. When are we expecting them to be published?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes, we will publish them before recess. On CDC1, we published a summary report—I know recess is next week, but we will publish them before recess.

Chair: We admire your ambition.

Jane Cunliffe: We published a summary report on CDC1 in 2021, which had the overarching information. Every school has a report for CDC1 with photos of all the different elements, so it is easy to follow, and they have the list of all the different elements and how they were rated, A, B, C or D. The schools and the responsible bodies have had that information for quite some time and we will be publishing the rest before recess.

Q45            Olivia Blake: The reason this is important is that some of the evidence we have had in has highlighted that schools feel there are lots of little pots, but also that it feels sometimes like a lottery. Do you have any reflections on that and do you feel that the money has been directed to the right places?

Susan Acland-Hood: We do. I appreciate that feeling about different pots, but we think there are sensible rationales for those different pots. It is certainly not a lottery.

We use the CDC data and careful assessment mechanisms where there is a bidding element. For devolved formula capital, that is an amount that every school gets on a formula basis, as the name suggests. That is intended to be a simple allocation that people can know is coming to them and which allows them to do relatively smaller things but without having any kind of bureaucracy or worry about whether they will get the money.

The school condition allocations are the ones that we give to responsible bodies. They go to local authorities and, for academy trusts, to trusts that have, essentially, five or more schools. There is a pupil-numbers element to it. I can explain it in detail if you want, but it is essentially slightly larger groups of schools that allow for that agglomeration effect. That is there so that they can do some of their own prioritisation—again, because we know that capital spend is often lumpy. It often makes sense to allow one school to do a big project one year, and another to do a big project another year, rather than slicing it between each school.

Then, the condition improvement fund essentially tries to replicate that principle and that system for the schools that are either on their own or are in groups that are too small for that aggregation to make sense in their trust. All the amount that would have gone into their school condition allocation goes for that school into the CIF pot and then they bid. We can talk a bit more about the mechanism we use for CIF, but I can assure the Committee that it is not a lottery.

Q46            Olivia Blake: How assured are you about and how do you understand the current safety of schools that have already been prioritised in the rebuilding programme?

Jane Balderstone: There is a set of schools that were prioritised before the end of last year, so in 2021. We are working with all those schools. They are in delivery. And we have worked with the responsible bodies, through our project teams, to understand where the risks might be, put any mitigations in place and then work towards the permanent build. So that’s what is happening with that set of schools.

On those schools that we selected in December 2022, we are about to write to them to confirm which group they are going to start in; they are going to start over a number of years. For those schools, we have been through the assessment evidence and then a range of information that they have provided back to us, since December, to understand the current position.

Where there are urgent issues, we are already working with those schools to mitigate those situations, and where there are less urgent issues or the school has work to do before they can start their project, those schools will be in a later group. So we are as confident as we can be that the relevant issues have been highlighted and there is a plan in place for them.

Q47            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Ms Cunliffe, I make no excuse for coming back to the issue of asbestos. I don’t know whether you see the evidence that we are given in this Committee, but the National Association of Head Teachers tells us this: “There remains no complete national register of asbestos location in schools, although based on the Department for Education (DfE)’s Asbestos Management Assurance Report…as many as 83.5% of schools still have asbestos on site.” Do you agree with that figure?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes, we do. We think about 80% of the school estate has some asbestos somewhere in the building. It can vary a lot as to extent.

Q48            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am going to come on to that in the next bit. I don’t know whether schools come under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, but that Act requires qualifying buildings to keep an asbestos register. There are two very good reasons for that. One is that you need to identify where the asbestos is, so that you can identify which asbestos needs to be removed.

The second reason, which has not been discussed at all this morning, is to do with the exact location or the region that the asbestos is in—you can never be sure exactly where it is until you do all the surveys or remove the ceiling or whatever. It is so that when building work is carried out, precise instructions can be given to the contractors so that they know where the asbestos is.

As we know to our cost in this place, if contractors do not adhere to those instructions, that can lead to dangers for their workers. When do we think that these registers are going to be readily available for all schools?

Jane Cunliffe: Already, from our managing asbestos in schools guidance, schools and responsible bodies should have those registers. They should be on site so that, as you say, if contractors come in to do any work, they are readily available. Even if the responsible body is, for example, an academy trust, the guidance makes it clear that that register should be on site. And the asbestos management plan should be in place.

There should be training for staff on-site, but particularly when building works are carried out, so that they are carefully managed. We set that out in our asbestos management in schools guidance, which we worked with the Health and Safety Executive very closely on. Through the Condition Data Collection 2 surveys, of which we have done about 40% so far, we are asking the surveyors to do an assurance process for us about how those steps that we set out really clearly in the guidance are being adhered to.

Q49            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Okay. I don’t know which of the three of you deals with fire prevention, but Zurich UK, in its evidence to us, says that “in May 2020 there was a fire in Harrington Junior School, Long Eaton, Derbyshire. It was estimated that it would cost £5.5 million to replace Harrington Junior School, significantly exceeding the price of a sprinkler system that experts say would have saved it.”

If we go on to the London Fire Brigade evidence, it says that it “continues to be concerned that the fire statistics for England show that of the 5,120 fires in schools between 2010/11 and 2019/20, only 96…are recorded as having sprinklers installed—which is less than two per cent. Many schools are continuing to be built, or undergoing major refurbishment, without AFSS being included and we are concerned that the ‘expectation’ set out in BB100 that sprinkler systems are included is being consistently ignored.” What is your answer to that?

Susan Acland-Hood: This is an issue on which the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group has been engaging extensively with the Department. The BB 100 asks for sprinklers to be installed on a risk basis, and I think that does sometimes cause a bit of confusion. It tends to be assumed—or that raises the expectation—that most schools would have sprinklers, but typically schools are assessed as relatively low risk, which is why sprinklers have typically not been installed.

We continue to look at that very carefully. We continue to assess and reassess that kind of risk judgment. It is a contentious area, and we will continue to look at the evidence base. Analysis continues. We closed the BB 100 consultation in August 2021; it looked at a wide-ranging evidence base, including data compiled by the Home Office from fire and rescue services on fires in schools, and data from our own risk protection and assurance agreement teams—data that looks at claims made on that scheme.

We asked the Government’s Actuary Department to analyse and review all that. It continued to show relatively low risk—something like 450 fires per year in an estate of 65,000 buildings, of which 90% are fires that cause no damage, are limited to the first item ignited or impact only one room.

On average, fewer than six fires per year impact two floors or more of a school. The Government Actuary analysis shows a narrowing gap in the cost-benefit as construction costs rise, but still showed that sprinkler costs continued to outweigh the benefits unless there is a particular risk factor in a school, so they are not considered to provide value for money.

Jane Cunliffe: We consulted on updating “Building Bulletin 100: design for fire safety in schools”, and we are examining the results of the consultation at the moment. In the consultation, the suggestion was to mandate sprinkler systems in residential blocks, special needs schools and in blocks over 11 metres—a risk-based approach. As Susan said, the actual risk is a bit lower, but there are certain types of building where we think it is higher. We will look at that and at the consultation responses to BB 100.

Q50            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I hear what you both say but, as a surveyor, there is a difference between retrofitting sprinkler systems and fitting them to new buildings. The cost of fitting them to new buildings is considerably lower than retrofitting them. I do not want to quote it again, but from the evidence that the London Fire Brigade gave, particularly in larger schools, you should seriously consider mandating them in all new school building projects.

Susan Acland-Hood: This is something that we take seriously and keep under review. I am very happy to ask that we look again—the point you make about the difference between retrofit and new build is an important one. I happily commit to the Committee that we will look again at a disaggregated value-for-money calculation looking at new build separately from retrofit.

Jane Balderstone: We know that some responsible bodies take a more risk-averse approach to certain schools where they perceive there to be higher risk. In our central rebuilding programmes, where there is higher risk because of the particular configuration of the site, we have installed sprinklers—I can think of one example.

Q51            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: For absolute clarity and for the record, I am a member of the all-party fire safety and rescue group.

May I go on to the issue of insurance? Again, this is evidence given to us by Zurich UK. We are talking about your risk pooling arrangement. Basically, what Zurich is saying is that that does not actually provide any sort of requirement for either safety or refurbishment in schools, whereas a commercial organisation—such as Zurich before it took on the insurance of schools—would be giving schools some form of oversight as to what risks they should at least be looking at. This seems to be a bit of a mish-mash—what is out there commercially and what you are offering as standard.

Susan Acland-Hood: We are extremely proud of the risk protection arrangements. We think it has been a good innovation. A recent member survey provided a 93% favourable rating on the service provided. We think it has given us about £650 million in savings to April 2022. That has not just driven savings to the members of the scheme, but impacted the cost of insurance for non-members, pushing it down from about £57 per pupil in 2014 to £27 in 2022. I do not want to say anything to the detriment of Zurich, but I am not surprised that some insurers may—

Q52            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I get that, and I was careful in my question.

Susan Acland-Hood: But the scope of the cover was authored by Willis Towers Watson, which is a contracted supplier regulated by the FCA. It based the scope of the cover and the way it works on school commercial insurance policies. That was at the time of the RPA’s inception in 2014, but we have iteratively reviewed that over time to try to ensure that it remains in line with the commercial insurance sector. We do seek to try to ensure that it is effectively providing very similar cover to commercial products. Again, it is always something that we are happy to look at.

Q53            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Of course Zurich has a commercial point to make here, but the point it was making was that before it would take on the insurance and the school, it would insist on a survey, if you like, of all the possible risks—whether it be fire, asbestos, rust or whatever it is—and provide some advice for that school on what it should maybe be looking out for. I wonder whether there is more scope in your scheme to offer some of that advice.

Jane Cunliffe: We do a lot of work with the risk protection arrangement, including between the team who run the risk protection arrangement and the capital team. For example, the RPA will cover costs of specialist asbestos removal if there has been damage. It has been doing some work on flood defences. We think it is a fairly comprehensive insurance scheme. It helps us with the condition of the estate, because some of the improvements they will do through the RPA scheme are improvements that are separately funded to the capital funding.

Jane’s team and the RPA team work very closely together, and for schools in the risk protection arrangement it builds our data and understanding of the condition of the estate. There are improvements works done as part of that arrangement, so we think it is very good value for money, but of course, as Susan said, we are happy to keep it under review.

Susan Acland-Hood: I understand the point you are making, Sir Geoffrey, which is that at the outset, commercial insurers will effectively manage their own risk in taking on a school by asking it to ensure—we can have a look at whether there is more of that that we can do. We would not want to get too selective about who we let into the RPA, because we think one of its strengths is offering cover for schools that might actually struggle to get commercial insurance. We have really strong links between the RPA and our capital teams, including our schools capital advisers, and I think there might be a connection there that we could make that would replicate what you have described.

Q54            Ashley Dalton: I want to pick up on some of the funding issues. In the NAO Report, we can see that there is actually quite a significant gap between what you identified was necessary for the school estate and what has actually been allocated. What do you think the impact is on the school estate of that differential?

Susan Acland-Hood: It is true that we did not get everything we asked for in our spending review bid. I think we made a good bid that we could have spent well; we try to do that, and we think that is important. As I said earlier, I appreciate the very difficult job that our Treasury colleagues have of having to make prioritisation decisions between a wide range of very good cases made to them for spending across Government. I understand that, but it is true to say that if we had been allocated more funding, we would have been able to do more work. I think that is obvious.

Q55            Ashley Dalton: Right, absolutely. In terms of "do more work", what is the balance between rebuilding and maintenance? What has been the impact on that balance? What do you think it should be? What is the ongoing impact? One of the things I am particularly concerned about is if we might be spending more money on maintenance. Is it actually that maintenance is not being done, which could be stacking up for bigger problems in the future?

Susan Acland-Hood: We try to maintain a good balance between the preventative maintenance allocations and the money we spend on remediation, exactly for the reason that we want to try to avoid challenges building up across the school estate. In whatever total envelope we have, we will always keep a very careful eye on that balance. We have £1.8 billion in the allocation for the more preventative maintenance end. We sometimes get a bit of a push on whether we should divert more of that towards remediation, but actually we think that we have got the balance about right. If we moved more funding, we would be at risk of storing up other difficulties for the future. Jane, did you want to build on that?

Jane Cunliffe: The balance between maintenance and rebuilding in our bids and eventual settlement is about what we said would be the right balance. Of course, 30% of schools have been built since 2000 and some Victorian school buildings are in really good condition for their age, so we need to make sure that we are spending the right amount of money on maintaining those.

We can extend the design life of buildings with the right level of maintenance. We have £1.8 billion on condition funding, as the permanent secretary said, and our school rebuilding programme is forecast to go to £1.1 billion next year. So there will always be a balance. Not all the estate needs rebuilding and quite a lot has been built in this century, so we think it is really important for there to be a good pot of maintenance funding allocated to the priority areas.

Q56            Ashley Dalton: You think the balance is right proportionally, regardless of the fact that there was the gap in the overall funding parts. Thank you for that. What do you identify as the longer-term risks to value for money? If a lot of money is being spent on remedial works, how are you managing that risk in terms of value for money?

Susan Acland-Hood: There are a couple of things on value for money. We know that when we are able to give ourselves and our construction partners a clearer and longer-term pipeline for work, we can get better value.

One of the things we were really pleased about in the spending review bid was that we got agreement to a 10-year programme. That has given us that long-term view. It has also been hugely welcomed by the construction partners we work with. That allows them, for example, to invest more in modern methods of construction.

I visited one of the factories where pieces of West Coventry Academy—one of the schools being rebuilt—were being made. Companies cannot invest for us in scale and modern methods of construction unless they know they have a significant pipeline in which to use those techniques. There is a straightforward, “The more we’re building, the better value we can get from construction partners.” Length of pipeline matters as well as the number of schools.

There is another area where we look carefully at value for money. As has been said, rebuilding is not the right answer for all schools, but you sometimes tip over the point where looking at the five or 10-year set of things you would need to do to keep a school in good condition, you see that it would actually be better value to rebuild the school. There will be schools that we can keep standing up and where there is no risk to pupils. Those might not necessarily get right to the top of our prioritisation, but in the longer term it might be better value if we were able to rebuild them. If we were able to get closer to the amount of money we had initially bid for, we would be able to do more work of that kind.

Q57            Ashley Dalton: Okay, so we might potentially not get to rebuild some of schools that could need rebuilding—until they are critical?

Susan Acland-Hood: I would not characterise them as schools that need rebuilding. We have schools that we can continue to maintain in a condition that we think is okay, but if you aggregate up the amount we would be spending on them over a period of years to keep them standing, it might be better value to rebuild schools in that category. But we do not necessarily have the capital to rebuild them immediately now. That is one of the value for money considerations, but if a school is in such poor condition that there is no alternative than rebuilding to keep it standing up, we believe we are able to play our part.

Q58            Ashley Dalton: But there is a risk that value for money could not be as good as it could be because of there not being the funding available to—

Susan Acland-Hood: As accounting officer, I would not have made a spending review bid for money that I did not think I could spend well, so I am going to sit here and tell you that if I had been given all that money, I could have spent it really well.

Jane Cunliffe: On value for money, we work with our responsible bodies. I think the Committee had a submission from Hampshire, who are the largest responsible body.

There is some really good innovation, with refurbishments that can drastically extend the life of a building and cost £2 million or £3 million, rather than tens of millions for a new build. We work closely with some of the responsible bodies doing these new methods—putting a new exterior on a system build that is structurally sound, but where perhaps the temperature control is not right—some of which are amazingly innovative ways that give much better value for money than spending tens of millions on a new build. We are finding out new ways all the time, and we are looking at a small programme to pilot low-value but high-impact ways of extending the life of buildings. There is a whole range of things that we can do.

Q59            Ashley Dalton: You touched on the 10-year programme of school rebuilding; 400 schools have already been selected for that, with another 100 yet to be selected. How confident are you that you have selected the right 400? Will the 100 yet to be selected be schools with significant RAAC issues?

Susan Acland-Hood: I will turn to Jane, because she is very close to this, but we are confident in the selection of the first 400 schools. I am absolutely sure that we are not rebuilding anything that does not need rebuilding. Of the other 100 spaces, I would expect quite a lot of them to be dominated by RAAC, given the process we have under way.

Jane Cunliffe: We consulted the sector before we selected the majority of the 400 schools. We had a good range of responses about how we should target our selection criteria, which were for the schools in the worst condition. We asked about a range of things and people were most worried about condition, as you would expect. The nominations made were rigorously checked. We went out to all the schools that had been selected to determine whether they met the criteria and were the schools most in need of rebuilding. From what we saw in that selection round, we are happy that that is the case.

Q60            Anne Marie Morris: May I look at the totality of the school rebuilding programme? Originally, it was very ambitious: we were going to have 500 identified, and you have your 400; you were going to contract 83, but you have contracted 24; and you were going to complete four, but you have one—that was in the Report, though things might have moved on. How are we going to speed this up, so that you can catch up with the original ambition? You have already mentioned the challenges of inflation and building costs. What are you going to do to get back on track?

Jane Balderstone: The numbers in the Report refer to the initial planning assumptions, before the full impact of the pandemic, the Ukraine war and so on was fully known. We have done a lot to go fast in that we have selected the 400 projects—we selected them slightly ahead of schedule—and before many of those world events happened, we got to contract on the first projects in about two thirds of the time taken in previous programmes. We were able to do  that because we had invested a lot in our previous programmes and learnt the lessons, and we had had good feedback from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, so we have been building on our continuum of school rebuilding programmes. The Report highlights that the IPA said that we had managed previous programmes well.

You are right about there being more delay than we first anticipated in getting the contracts on some of those projects. That, as the permanent secretary highlighted, was largely down to inflation issues and so on. Now we have amended our funding policies and worked through some of the issues, we are ahead or within the contract times that we set. For example, in the past year, the forecasts for the projects that are due to hand over this year have not moved since last year. We are more comfortable that we are more on track than we were. Within the Department and the team, it feels as if we are going at quite a pace to get to the right place.

Susan Acland-Hood: We had delays getting into contract, which we have now addressed through that change to contract terms, but the critical thing is that our pace once the projects are in contract—so in the actual building of the schools—has been ahead rather than behind in the ones that we have built so far. I mentioned West Coventry Academy. I visited that school, and it is about six months ahead of schedule.

Jane Balderstone: We have handed over four now, and we are obviously delighted that pupils are in those buildings.

Q61            Anne Marie Morris: Looking at the original programme and the number of years it would take you to achieve this, do you still think that you will achieve that deadline?

Jane Balderstone: We have had discussions about this with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which has reviewed our programmes with us and done our gateway reviews as expected for major Government projects. On those initial phases where we were slightly behind where we wanted to be, we will not catch those up, but in terms of the whole, overall programme, we still believe that we will be on track with where we expected to be.

Q62            Anne Marie Morris: On time, with all of them.

Jane Balderstone: With the majority of them. As the Report refers to, we have handed over the majority of previous programmes within our estimated dates, so we are confident that we can do that.

Q63            Anne Marie Morris: How do you overcome the problems? Inflation will not go away; the challenge of getting construction companies will not go away, and nor will whatever the challenges were with trying to get contracts up and running. While I absolutely hear what you say about Ukraine and covid making a difference, some of those problems are not going away.

Jane Balderstone: And they have been really difficult, so I completely acknowledge that. We work very closely with our construction partners. When we meet them, they highlight the strength of the school pipeline in terms of their knowledge about which projects are coming up and how that allows them to invest and get teams ready to be able to take those forward. We are also doing quite a lot of work to look at our contracting model, both in response to some of the issues we have had and because we were planning to think about how we scale up our contracting model.

We are working on what we call an alliance for learning, where we will contract in much more of an alliance fashion. We think that those are really innovative ways to take the next step forward on our essential delivery journey and will help us to get over some of the issues. I completely acknowledge that there will continue to be problems that need to be managed, but we think we are in quite a strong position to do so. We have been learning a lot over the last 10 years.

Jane Cunliffe: Jane and I met all the construction firms on our framework recently to discuss the alliance model. Because it has an element of risk sharing, which we have not had in our models so far because we have been driving down the cost, and elements of standardisation greater than we use at the moment, that will help the construction firms to manage the pressures they are under and help with the speed, because of the standardisation of components, furniture and fittings and so on. That means that we will be able to keep up that really good delivery once we are in contract. We think that will be a really big improvement to the programme.

Jane Balderstone: It is also important to say that, obviously, we are one major Government project; there are many others. We work very closely with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to understand the position of suppliers across the Government portfolio, how we can support the strength of that and how we can all work together.

Q64            Anne Marie Morris: So you can improve your processes, which it looks like you are doing. That is a great thing, but there are some things that are out of your control. You cannot control inflation, the number of construction companies out there or the cost of materials. How will you deal with that?

Susan Acland-Hood: Jane Balderstone described some changes that we have already made that resulted in us getting to the point where we are now getting into contract much faster again. That was essentially about recognising that there has been construction price inflation and that we would have to address that through our framework. The alliance model is effectively the next step in that. The things we have done already have worked. Effectively, we have accepted that we had to increase our rates somewhat in order to get into contract, and the alliance model is trying to both give better value so that we can continue that process and ensure that that does not result in the overall cost of the programme getting so large that we cannot manage the total of what we set out.

Q65            Anne Marie Morris: Do you still expect to do this within budget?

Jane Balderstone: We will continually review our position against our budgets. We have worked with the Treasury on our current measures, and we are content that we are on track at the moment. Obviously, as you indicate, there may be future world events that we cannot control, but yes, at the moment that is our expectation.

Q66            Anne Marie Morris: Moving on, the estate has deteriorated. The Chair mentioned at the start that we now have 700,000 pupils in buildings that need rebuilding or refurbishing. It is clear from the evidence we have seen that that affects children’s attainment and teacher retention. What can you do to help those 700,000 pupils to ensure that they do not miss out and to ensure that we retain the teachers?

Susan Acland-Hood: The starting point is that the 700,000 come from schools where someone, either through a programme or in the responsible body, has said that they believe the school might need—

Q67            Chair: These are schools that are sub-optimal. You would have to agree that, Ms Acland-Hood.

Susan Acland-Hood: They are schools that think they might need to be—

Chair: They are not the best places for our young people to be educated.

Susan Acland-Hood: We have a comprehensive programme—we have discussed quite a lot of it in this session already—that looks at the investment we need to make in preventive maintenance to allow schools to keep their buildings in good condition, and the routes through school condition allocations and CIF for lumpier funding that is still manageable by the responsible body. We also have the school rebuilding programme, which looks at schools where the condition need is such that the whole block needs to be rebuilt. Our strategy is about keeping those elements of the programme running well and in balance, as well as ensuring that we have the data and analysis to really target and prioritise.

One of my key responsibilities, and we all take it really seriously, is to spend the funding that we have as well as we possibly can, in a way that gets the best value and gives the best results for children, teachers and others across the estate. We think that is incredibly important. We talked earlier in the hearing about the condition data work that we do to survey and understand the condition of the estate, and the additional layers we put on top of that for the structural issues that are harder to see through that survey. As I said at the beginning, CDC1 figures show that the vast majority—more than 90%—of the components across the estate are in good or satisfactory condition, about 2% are graded C and 0.3% are graded D.

Q68            Anne Marie Morris: Can I stop you there? We understand the figures. I am more concerned about what you are doing to make the children feel loved, needed and wanted, not utterly depressed and thinking, “I don’t want to focus on the mathematics today, thank you very much, because there is water coming through the ceiling.” The teachers are effectively saying, “I am not putting up with this. I haven’t got a staff room—it’s closed because there is mould in it.” What are you going to do? What are you doing about the feel-good factor, if I can put it like that, to make the kids want to learn and the teachers want to teach?

Susan Acland-Hood: About a third of the floor area of the estate has been built since 2000, so the programmes of rebuilding that we have done have had a significant impact.

Q69            Anne Marie Morris: I am obviously not explaining myself. I understand what you are doing to try to improve things. What I am asking is: while all that is going on—good though it is—what interventions are you putting in place? Are you asking headteachers to take particular steps to ensure that the children do not feel really depressed because of the state of the classroom? Are you asking headteachers to intervene and work with staff to ensure that they do not feel frustrated because they do not have what they need to teach well?

Jane Cunliffe: We work really closely with the responsible bodies. I was a trustee in a multi-academy trust until I joined DfE, so I know that responsible bodies take that really seriously. Across their school condition allocation, they look at what the education experience in those building is, and that will be part of their prioritisation. For example, the trust I was in did quite a lot of refurbishment on toilet blocks with our school condition allocation, to prevent bullying. We would expect responsible bodies to use the funding that we give them to look at that. Certainly, our experience talking to responsible bodies is that they will prioritise the experience as well as the condition risks. Headteachers absolutely take that very seriously.

With things such as the devolved formula capital, which goes directly to schools, although that is a small amount, those sort of improvements to suitability are exactly what schools are able to do with that small amount of capital. They can do those little paint jobs or refurbishments that can really make a difference to the experience.

Q70            Mr Walker: I think that teacher retention should be part of this conversation. It is quite striking; figure 5 in the report shows the geographical spread of condition need. Obviously, that is only one metric, but at first glance there is quite a striking north-south divide in that map, which reflects the north-south divide we see in many parts of education. At a closer look, we see that major population centres in the north of England are reasonably well served, and that there is actually a big urban-rural divide. Those are some of the same issues we see when it comes to teacher retention in rural and coastal communities, which are struggling to attract people. How much alignment is there in the regional variation here and the Department’s process of targeting education investment areas and priority education investment areas? My understanding is that, apart from free school sixth forms, there is no particular element of those EIAs which is capital focused, or is that wrong?

Susan Acland-Hood: No, that is right. Well, there is a digital element that is capital focused, but that is probably not what you mean. I think you are right. It is a feature and a challenge across the whole education system that there will be areas where it is much harder for schools or trusts locally to attract and support additional investment. We know that schools in some areas are able to support some of this work through other routes and means, and we know that that is much harder in areas where deprivation is higher. I think your point about large population centres is right and notable as well, and that is a legacy of some of the longer run prioritisations around school building programmes.

There is currently no condition-focused or capital-focused element of the education investment area and priority education investment area programme. However, all our school condition allocations and all the work we do through the school rebuilding programme and CIF are focused on condition, so if you have concentrations of poor condition, those places will be getting larger allocations already through the formulas that we apply. Again, I think it is a good challenge and something we can take back into the Department to look at whether we could use the priority education impact area mechanisms to work, in partnership rather than through direction, with local schools and responsible bodies on how they are using some of those allocations locally.

Jane Balderstone: But we did consult on that as part of the school rebuilding programme consultation, and the feedback was that responsible bodies would prefer, with the funding available, for it to be directed solely towards condition.

Q71            Mr Walker: I realise that we are running out of time, but I presume that the 64,000 buildings that this work covers does not include temporary buildings, Portakabins, and so on. Does the Department have figures for the number of those in use across the school estate? Or do responsible bodies have to report to you on the number of temporary buildings in use across the school estate?

Jane Balderstone: We do have the number of temporary buildings. It is surveyed as part of the condition data collection, so we do have that available, but I do not know the number off the top of my head.

Q72            Mr Walker: On the question of value for money, I think there is a significant revenue cost issue with those buildings. We all know that, partly because of the demographic issues that the Chair touched on, some of those buildings that were put in place a long time ago have remained in place much longer than was originally expected, and there is a value for money question to be asked about whether there should be a specific programme to replace them. I might follow up with some written questions on the number and regional spread of those buildings, because it would be useful to know.

Jane Balderstone: Where they are part of applications to either the condition improvement fund or to the school rebuilding programme, they can be dealt with in that way, but that does not totally address your point.

Jane Cunliffe: The 64,000 does include temporary blocks. It would be covered in the CDC data. With lots of our rebuilding programmes, we find schools, particularly secondaries, where they have a number of blocks, some of which are temporary. Obviously when we rebuild, we rebuild them as one, much easier to manage, large block, which is obviously much better value for money.

Mr Walker:  There is read-across to the Department’s climate change and sustainability programme here as well, of course.

Q73            Chair: I thank all those who gave evidence, but Hampshire County Council represents one in 50 pupils, which is extraordinary, and it has a lot of useful stuff on this account. It is interesting that some of the new temporary buildings are actually better in climate terms and cheaper to heat.

Susan Acland-Hood: Some are, but not all temporaries are the same.

Chair: I think we all remember being taught in Portakabins that are probably still there in some of the schools we attended.

Q74            Anne Marie Morris: A number of schools have been using revenue for capital projects. I know that, in theory, you allocate the money and they are supposed to spend it in a particular way, but they do not. What sort of problems is that going to give rise to? Clearly with teacher pay going up, energy bills going up, and inflation, to have used your revenue for capital is going to leave you in a very difficult place. Have you come across a number of schools that have misspent—perhaps with the right intentions—not anticipating what they might find themselves with in the current economic situation?

Susan Acland-Hood: Typically what we see is that when schools have built up a surplus, which is typically from revenue, they will often consider whether they might want to use their surplus on a capital project. Our position has tended to be that that is a good and important freedom and flexibility that schools and trusts should be allowed. Indeed, this is one of the things we talk about sometimes when we get asked about schools’ surpluses. Often when you look at schools that look like they have unreasonably large surpluses, it is actually because they have been trying to save their surplus for a big lumpy piece of capital spend. We do not typically see schools irresponsibly diverting to capital when they had good revenue things to spend on, but I agree with you, particularly with unexpected change, that we may see some schools that had been hoping to use some of their surpluses for capital having to pull it back into revenue spend to manage some of the current pressures. That is more likely.

Q75            Anne Marie Morris: So at the moment it is a watching brief. You do not see it as a problem, but you accept that it may be a problem for schools with the new economic circumstances they find themselves in.

Susan Acland-Hood: Yes.

Q76            Anne Marie Morris: On contingent liabilities, it is always very difficult to plan for the future because, as we know, you never quite know what will come around the corner. Is there a contingent liability pot that you are able to access? For example, both the Chair and I have sadly had teachers who have passed away as a result of asbestos. That generally leads to claims and a payout. Is there a pot for that centrally in the Department for how you deal with that sort of situation?

Jane Cunliffe: We do not have a central pot for that sort of contingent liability, and obviously that is a really tragic circumstance. Academy trusts, for example, would look to use their surpluses for that if it were an unexpected cost. They could always come to the Department and talk about that. The Education and Skills Funding Agency works closely with all academy trusts on their finances. If they had an expected, very large claim, they would be able to come and talk to the Department about whether that is something we could help with, or if it is a larger academy trust, it might be able to manage it from its surpluses. It might be insured against claims of that type, so there are a range of ways that trusts could deal with that.

Q77            Anne Marie Morris: So there is no specific contingency pot. What about a bigger contingency pot? It is obvious that there will be a lump as a lot of schools are going to fall down unless we rebuild them because a chunk of them, as the Chair explained, were built at the same time. Is there some contingency pot, or at least one in your forward plan, so that when you go to the Chancellor and ask for some money, you can actually demonstrate that things are lumpy?

Susan Acland-Hood: I do not think we would frame that as a contingency pot. That is the sort of evidence we take when we make bids and when we make the case for allocations. Indeed, that was part of the case we made that resulted in the school rebuilding programme that we now have and the 10-year pipeline that I described. We will, as part of the case making, talk about the profile of the estate and what we understand the condition to be. We will show that, including the value-for-money calculations we were discussing earlier, as well as the safety need. We would not frame that as a pot; we would use that as part of the conversation on funding.

Jane Cunliffe: We also have an urgent capital support pot, which we have mentioned. If responsible bodies have an unforeseen capital issue—we have had things with lightning, floods and so on—they can always come to the Department, and indeed they do, for urgent capital support. I think we have supported 228 schools with that since 2015. It is about £59 million. As part of our capital allocation, we will always look to have some funding available for those. We get very good feedback from responsible bodies when we have helped in those really unexpected circumstances, which you could not have expected them to manage.

Q78            Chair: Ms Morris raises an important point. Do you have a figure for the number of staff who have died of asbestos poisoning, or an illness resulting from it, who have had payouts?

Jane Cunliffe: What we have is the HSE data on asbestos deaths, and that records the last known profession from the death certificate information, so we do have that, and we have the number of people who have been recorded as teachers. It does not tell us where they were exposed. It could have been in the school or pre the asbestos regulations being in place. We work closely with HSE to look at the lessons we can learn from that.

Q79            Chair: Do you try to extract any data that is useful to you in the Department? It is all very well having the last profession, but if they lived with someone who worked in a school, that would not tell you very much. Do you have any more curiosity?

Jane Cunliffe: Definitely. We look at things, for example, on the age of the people who have been recorded as teachers who have died from mesothelioma and when that might have been. So far, we think that was mostly during periods when asbestos probably was not being managed as it is now, and it was not as tightly regulated. There is a long latency period for mesothelioma. We work very closely with HSE to make sure we learn all of the lessons and look at what those could be.

Annual deaths were about seven in the 2000s, and they have been about 11 a year from 2011 to 2020. That is for people who were recorded with “teacher” on their death certificate, so it has increased. But we also think that they are mainly people who were exposed some decades ago. We work closely with HSE, and it is an issue that we take incredibly seriously, including through all the work that we discussed earlier about the guidance and things to make sure it is being managed well in schools at the moment.

Chair: It is a tragedy, as Ms Morris and I know.

Q80            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I do not mind who answers this. How can you persuade school leaders to take a more active interest in the strategic management of their estates, particularly in small schools that do not have the specialist managers that the larger ones do?

Susan Acland-Hood: We typically find that school leaders are really interested in their estate, but of course, like anything else, you do have a bit of variability. It is true that the size of responsible bodies varies hugely. We talked earlier about the submissions that Hampshire had made to the Committee. They are a huge responsible body. They have a very large number of professionals working with them. That is very different from the position of a stand-alone academy trust seeking to manage their building.

We give quite comprehensive guidance and advice to schools on managing their estate, and we get very good feedback on the key piece of guidance that supports schools in this set of issues. We have also got a new programme of school capital advisers available to support schools. Again, we would expect them to be disproportionately used by the smaller responsible bodies that have got a bit less capacity.

Jane Cunliffe: We have also reiterated in the academies handbook that goes to all academy trusts and is read in detail by trustees—when I was a trustee I read it in detail—the estate management responsibilities, because we want to make sure that that is top of the list for things like the audit risk committee of an academy so that they take particularly the health and safety side of things very seriously. As Susan says, we have a range of estate-specific advice as well for trusts.

Q81            Chair: I do not know a lot about trusts, but we do still have maintained schools and of course the Church schools.

Susan Acland-Hood: For maintained schools the responsible body is the local authority.

Q82            Chair: Exactly. So you deal with the local authority, trusts and the Church boards.

Jane Cunliffe: So far we have targeted the capital advisers’ programme at academy trusts, particularly smaller to medium-sized ones, and particularly ones where they are about to go over the threshold to getting the school condition allocations—whether they will get their own allocation—just to make sure that they have an asset management plan.

Q83            Chair: So ones that have less experience. You kept talking about trusts, so I was thinking, “Why just trusts?”

Susan Acland-Hood: To be clear, the support is available to local authorities. It is just that they tend to have more scale—

Chair: Yes. Ms Cunliffe kept talking about trusts and I was thinking, “Well, there are other schools, too”, but now I understand why.

Q84            Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: A final question on this subject. This is in the context of the Report and the number of schools that do not even apply for any of your schemes. That implies that there is a problem out there with school leaders not believing that the DfE is signalling a condition that is a priority. Indeed, paragraph 1.13 on page 16 of the Report says that the Department “has little quantitative evidence, which makes it very difficult to understand the level of guidance and support required and target it effectively.” I accept that for the vast bulk of the schools what you were saying about GEMS and CAP is very welcome news, but for those schools that are either not engaging in the system at all in terms of management or are too busy doing other things, I am not sure whether that guidance is reaching those schools.

Jane Cunliffe: That is obviously a concern that we share. We do make sure that we are targeting the programmes at the smaller and medium responsible bodies to ensure people are fulfilling the responsibilities. On RAAC, for example, we have been following up very closely with people who have not responded to make sure that they understand the risks and will respond. If you looked at where we target our face-to-face, more concentrated effort, it is at the ones who are smaller or medium sized—as they are likely to have smaller estates teams and so on—but also at those who have not responded. With the asbestos survey and the RAAC survey, we have spent a lot of time with the ones that have not responded. We hope that doing that will encourage them to take those estate management responsibilities seriously in the future.

Q85            Chair: With the local authorities, about 10 are very small and would not reach the threshold to get their own funding if they were a multi-academy trust. Are they getting more support from you than bigger authorities, Ms Cunliffe?

Jane Cunliffe: At the moment, our capital advisers programme is targeted at academy trusts. We have not ruled out extending that to local authorities, but we generally find that even smaller local authorities, because they have other estates responsibilities—

Q86            Chair: Do you judge it by local authority or the number of schools they run? There is a diminishing number of maintained schools in local education authorities, because of closures and other things that add to that. Is it the schools or the size of the authority as a whole? A London authority may have a few schools but be a big authority.

Susan Acland-Hood: We have not taken that school condition allocation-type role away from local authorities, even where the number of schools has put them below the threshold if they were a MAT. That is partly because the local authority is a bigger organisation and it has other estates responsibilities, so they have other ways of getting the agglomeration effect.

Chair: So you think they have the skills? Fine, okay. It is helpful to know.

Q87            Ashley Dalton: We have covered the skills and so on, but looking at the report, some schools said that they had not applied for the condition improvement fund because they did not have the capacity to do so, and a few said that they had never heard of it and had not applied because they were not aware of it. What are you doing to support schools that need to be able to access it but cannot, either because they do not have capacity or do not know it exists?

Susan Acland-Hood: Thank you. We were very concerned to read that there were schools that did not know it existed. I hope that if you were a school that was really worried about your condition, you would have found out what support there was available for managing the condition—

Ashley Dalton: They might not be worried either, but they might need to be.

Susan Acland-Hood: To some extent, I may repeat some of the things that Jane has just said. We try really hard to focus and target our advice on smaller responsible bodies. We do work quite hard to ensure that people are aware of our programme. There are also some specific things we have done. I will not do it again, I promise, but when I went through that set of figures on the proportion of components in the original condition dataset, it was graded as D.

Chair: Yes, 0.03%. You got the message across.

Susan Acland-Hood: I talked about the ones that we are giving particular attention to in CDC2 and following that up and checking that something has been done. We have also identified the schools that had a D-grade component under CDC1 that have not applied for or received capital funding, and we have gone out and contacted those responsible for each of the schools individually to say, “Hello, you had a D-grade component. You don’t seem to have applied for any funding or had a chunk of funding that looked like it could manage this.” In each case, they have either addressed it through other means, have a plan to do so or have explained why they have not done it yet. In some cases it was D graded, but it was a very tiny thing. The grading applies to all sorts of different components of the school. For the small number that have not addressed it and did not have a sensible reason why they did not, we are contacting the responsible body to actively offer support. In the cases where we know that there is an item in really poor condition, we are chasing them down.

Q88            Chair: So you feel you have sight of it. I wanted to pick up on some issues that have come up through in the hearing. Starting with free schools, on the land bank, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is the responsible Department when land needs to be disposed of. I mentioned one on the edge of my constituency that was bought by the Department for £33 million. Ms Balderstone, do you have a list of all the sites you still own that have not been used for free schools?

Jane Balderstone: Yes. They are managed by LocatED, our property agency. I do not have that list to hand.

Q89            Chair: Okay. Lots of money was spent on some of these sites. Do you have an active plan for disposal, so that the money can be well used to fund the school programmes that we have been discussing today?

Jane Balderstone: Yes. That is part of the role of LocatED, too—not only to manage them in situ, but to determine the best possible outcome for the money that has been spent.

Q90            Chair: Is the plan now to dispose of the sites that have not been used because they perhaps have not had planning permission or there is now not the need for school places?

Jane Balderstone: In some cases, that might be the right option, but not in the majority, I would say.

Q91            Chair: It would be helpful if you could give us a note, or get LocatED to give us a note, about all the sites that you still own across the country, what the plan is for delivering those and whether there are any commercial confidentiality elements. If we could have that on those terms, we will happily discuss that.   

Jane Balderstone: For the majority of them, the plan is to make use of them in the best possible way—whether that is with the original plan or something slightly different—but yes, we will provide that.

Q92            Chair: I do not want to go into too much about one example.

Jane Balderstone: I do not know the one you have mentioned.

Q93            Chair: I will ask my neighbouring MP, Stella Creasy. I really do not want to raise it with you, but it is an unusual site to even be bought in the first place. That brings me on to the sites that were bought and given to the free school that opened. I have one in my patch where they own the freehold. The academy trust happen to be based in another part of the country from most of their schools. They have one in Hackney. If they were to up sticks at any point, what would happen to the building? Could they dispose of it?  

Jane Balderstone: There are very specific clauses in the contractual arrangements to prevent that kind of thing from happening.

Q94            Chair: Could they take that money elsewhere? I will not name the part of the country, because it is not fair and I am not picking on them particularly, but could they take the money and invest it elsewhere? Most of their academies and free schools are in another part of the country.

Jane Balderstone: I do not think that would be possible, given the terms of the contract, but let me double-check that.

Q95            Chair: I would be interested to know. Mr Walker raised the issue of special educational needs places. In response, Ms Cunliffe, you talked about the places in mainstream schools. I know that London boroughs are looking at this because of the need to fund schools, but the first large chunk of funding has to come from the school itself for those special educational needs places, which makes it very difficult to sustain a specialist unit of a few pupils in a school. But that was one way to make sure that schools were sustainable in terms of pupil numbers. Is that something you are looking at?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes. For example, the safety valve local authorities, who were having difficulties with their high-needs budgets, will have addressed that through a range of different means. Where there are provisions that are open in schools, they will have provided additional funding to schools for that—sometimes capital funding to expand the school or create an area, and revenue funding—and they will also get the funding from the EHCPs for the children who are in those provisions. But there is a notional SEN budget, as I am sure Committee members will know, within the school funding to cover special needs up to a certain point.

Q96            Chair: In my borough, that was overspent by £11 million, which was backfilled. Of course, there was a famous court case where people quite understandably took the council to court but, actually, the council had been backfilling, to the tune of £11 million, for a number of years for those places. It is not sustainable in the long term for a school to pay the first £6,000 before any of the special educational needs money comes in, so the danger is that we are setting up something that is not sustainable in the long term, because that is a very big amount for a school to keep budgeting for.

Susan Acland-Hood: We have said we will look at the SEND notional budget—that first £6,000—as part of the work we are doing on special educational needs more widely through the Green Paper and the implementation plan. I think the challenge is that you do want some recognition. Schools are funded on a per-head basis, but we do not expect schools to spend, to the decimal point, the precise per-pupil amount on each student. There are lots of things where it makes much more sense to aggregate and spend together. You do want schools, within their own budgets, to be meeting different pupils’ needs differently, so if you have no concept of a notional budget at all, there is a risk that you reduce the incentives for people to meet those needs sensibly, and you also drive people towards trying to get a plan for absolutely everything. I am just explaining why it is not a slam dunk to abolish the £6,000 notional budget. There is a really good rationale for why you would want people to think about how they meet the first part of the need.

Q97            Chair: Mr Walker can pick that up, but on the one hand you have a need for special educational needs places—we do not want children being shipped out of borough, which is very costly and not good for them—and on the other you have schools that you need to sustain, especially in places such as mine where there is depopulation of children. You could have a specialist unit for children with physical needs—say, a deaf unit in one school and an autism unit in another—but such a unit carries huge expense for a mainstream school if that is one of the things required to keep it sustainable. Is there any flexibility on that? I will also ask Mr Walker to pick up.

Susan Acland-Hood: As I say, that is something we are looking at. All I am saying is that there is a really challenging bit of thinking to do about how you reform that in a way—

Q98            Chair: But time is of the essence with the school numbers.

Susan Acland-Hood: I completely understand that, but as I say, we are also testing and learning through the safety valve and delivering better value programmes, and we are seeing schools being able to grow that kind of provision through those programmes.

Q99            Mr Walker: This is straying slightly off schools capital in that space, but it is a really important area. It is notable that, as far as I am aware, there is not a single local authority in the country that does not have a high needs deficit. Safety valve is prioritised for the ones with the biggest problem, and delivering better value is prioritised at the next layer down. However, even the ones not in those programmes already have high needs deficit, so it is an important area of focus.

I wanted to ask a slightly different question—

Susan Acland-Hood: That is in a context where the amount of money going in has been going up hugely over time as well.

Mr Walker: Indeed.

Chair: But the needs are going higher.

Q100       Mr Walker: I have heard Minister Claire Coutinho saying a number of times now that the level of demand is rising. Certainly, that is what we hear consistently from schools.

On a slightly separate area, slightly off this brief, FE has been reclassified. With the reclassification of the FE estate, does that mean there needs to be a greater degree of parity of treatment when it comes to capital funding for FE? Do you have a similar approach to gathering data on condition for the FE estate?

Susan Acland-Hood: I do not think it automatically means you would want to do things in exactly the same way, because there are some really important differences between the schools estate and the FE estate and, indeed, between the governance and structures that operate across those two systems. FE capital is certainly something that we have been looking at really hard anyway, and we have also been giving a lot of attention to it as part of the reclassification work. We have seen in recent years much more investment in FE capital as a result of the last spending reviews. We also include FE colleges in CDC, so they are part of the condition data collection work. There are far fewer of them but they are typically a lot bigger. Again, that sounds simple, but it means the challenges they present are different. We have a significant FE college rebuilding programme under way as well. We do not try and operate an identical system but we try and use the same fundamental principles.

The biggest change that reclassification has brought has been to colleges’ ability to borrow commercially. We have addressed that both with some additional grant capital funding for colleges over the winter and with an FE college loan scheme, which we are just in the process of assessing applications for now.

Jane Cunliffe: In addition, Jane’s team runs the further education capital transformation programme. That is similar to the school rebuilding programme, but because of the difference in the estates it might not be the whole thing. We have included them in our work on RAAC, so with the surveying programme and the questionnaires, that is exactly the same approach for colleges. We would have done that anyway before reclassification.

Q101       Mr Walker: Sixth-form colleges are often considered a bit of a poor relation in the school system and in terms of funding would make the case that they suffer. Are you comfortable that they are adequately covered by the capital programmes?

Jane Cunliffe: Yes; they are all covered by the same range of programmes that we have just discussed in terms of colleges and CDC and so on.

Q102       Chair: I have a final question about PFI schools. We have been looking at that as a Committee. A lot of PFI buildings are coming to the end of their life. Every PFI owner is supposed to have a plan. How many of our schools are hitting that point and what support do you offer from the Department?

Jane Cunliffe: We have 741 schools currently with private finance arrangements. I am sure the Committee knows how those operate. We are working actively with all those schools, but particularly where the expiry of those contracts is imminent. We have a dedicated team in the capital directorate to work with those schools. We are actively working with 21 of the earliest contracts, but our plan is to work with all of the schools with an expiring contract to help them with the end of that contract and the negotiations with the private sector.

Q103       Chair: How many schools are still being used as schools?

Jane Cunliffe: All of the current—

Q104       Chair: All of them? There was one in Liverpool that had not been used as a school, wasn’t there? This is from memory.

Jane Cunliffe: I can check.

Q105       Chair: Are you going to make sure that they are up to a good condition?

Jane Cunliffe: Exactly. All that negotiation where you exit the contract and the private contractor is supposed to make it up to the condition, that is the bit that we are helping schools with, because we know that that is a big issue and a big risk. We want to make sure that we have that value from them.

Q106       Chair: So there is that really central support from the Department, because it is a lot for an individual school leader to take on.

Jane Cunliffe: Lots. Obviously, we plan that work staged on where the contracts will expire.

Q107       Chair: So you are confident that you are hitting all those marks, and that nothing will be missed in the Department for Education.

Jane Cunliffe: I think so, because of the number of schools that we can wrap our arms around. And they do not all expire at the same time, so we can plan our resourcing around that, and we have some of the best specialists in Government on PFI in the Department. We are really confident that we can provide schools with that support.

Jane Balderstone: As you are indicating, there are sometimes really difficult discussions, but given the technical expertise that we have in the Department we are happy that we are managing that in the appropriate way.

Chair: I think that we are all done. Thank you very much indeed for your time. I thank again the people who submitted evidence. We had some really detailed and helpful evidence for this session. We may not read it all out in the room, but it is used in our deliberations and preparation. I thank our witnesses very much indeed for their time. We have a few points that we will chase up with you, which we have discussed during the meeting.

The transcript of this session will be available on the website uncorrected in the next couple of days. Thank you to our Hansard colleagues for that. We will produce a report on the condition of school buildings in the autumn. Thanks again to Mr Robin Walker for lending his time and expertise to us today. He is the Chair of the Education Committee, and of course a former Education Minister, so we are doubly blessed.