‘Tell us which schools could collapse’: Labour will force ministers to reveal data

Teachers and parents voice fury over risk to life in England’s crumbling classrooms as DfE keeps survey details from public scrutiny

Ministers sparked a furious row over the safety of thousands of dilapidated school buildings in England on Saturday night by abandoning the imminent publication of data showing those judged to be most at risk of collapse.

Labour responded to the U-turn by saying it would use a rare parliamentary device to force publication of the documents about the perilous state of many schools across England, so that parents can judge whether it is safe to send their children to classes.

The headteachers’ union, the NAHT, meanwhile, described the decision to hold back on publication as “shocking”.

Ministers said for months that they would publish the so-called Buildings Conditions Survey data by the end of last year, after secret internal documents revealed by the Observer showed that some buildings were judged a “risk to life”.

Leaked internal emails showed that a battle was raging between the Department for Education (DfE) and the Treasury last spring for more funds to expand dramatically the rebuilding programme as concerns rose about the dangers.

In its latest annual report, published in December, the DfE confirmed the crisis, saying “there is a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools which are at, or approaching, the end of their designed life-expectancy, and structural integrity is impaired”. It added that “the risk predominantly exists in those buildings built in the years 1945 to 1970 which used ‘system build’ light-frame techniques”.

The DfE officials had also raised the risk level of buildings collapsing from “critical” to “critical – very likely”.

But when approached by the Observer last week and asked when, having missed its previous deadlines, it now intended to publish the data, the DfE gave no new date and would not explain why its position had changed.

Many Tory MPs have over recent months raised serious concerns about the state of school buildings in their constituencies in speeches in the Commons. Now Labour intends to use one of its opposition days in the Commons to force the government to release the papers by tabling a motion using a so-called “humble address”.

Under this rarely used but highly effective procedure, a vote of the House would bind the government to produce the documents. Most notably, the procedure was used in November 2017 by Labour to force the government to publish impact assessments on the UK’s exit from the EU that it wanted kept secret.

One source involved in the debate over release of the documents said Tory MPs would find it difficult not to vote for publication, given the sensitivity and importance of the issue. “Can you imagine being the MP who voted against a motion wanting to know if school buildings are about to collapse in his or her constituency?”

Leaks from inside the DfE last year showed officials calling as a matter of urgency for the Treasury to make billions more available to ensure the number of renovation projects for school buildings could be increased from the current 50 a year to more than 300.

Refusing to comment on publication of the data, the DfE said on Saturday night: “The condition data collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive data collection programmes in the UK public sector, which helps us to understand the condition of the school estate in England, and informs prioritisation of funding.

“The school rebuilding programme is transforming 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising schools based on their need. Since 2015, we have also allocated over £13bn for improving the condition of school buildings and facilities, including £1.8bn this financial year.”

The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “Parents will rightly be outraged at the government’s continued refusal to tell them the location and condition of buildings which pose a risk to their children’s lives.

“This endless flip-flopping from ministers over when to publish information about buildings that they have admitted are likely to collapse is an insult to parents worried that their children are not safe at school.

“Unless the secretary of state [Gillian Keegan] publishes these data urgently, she will be shown to be failing in her most fundamental duty: to keep children safe from harm.”

James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT, said: “It really is quite shocking that the government knows there are schools where there is a significant risk of collapse but are not being transparent about which schools are affected and where they are located.

“It is only right that parents and staff should know about this and, more importantly, that urgent action should be taken by the department to make sure that these buildings are made safe. The alternative simply does not bear thinking about.”


Toby Helm Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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