A recent survey by The Key found that 35 per cent of school leaders felt that their school buildings are unfit for purpose, and that leaders in six in 10 schools would like to improve or repair their current buildings.
School leaders across England cited problems including limited classroom space, overuse of temporary buildings, rising damp and leaking roofs. From staying on top of general maintenance, to knocking down unsafe or dilapidated parts of the building or adding new classrooms, keeping schools fit-for-purpose and safe for staff and pupils is a key priority.
The survey suggests that headteachers must perform a delicate balancing act around funding, health and safety and possible school closure, which can cause real headaches when trying to decide what improvements to make, where and when.
And there’s always a risk that short-term solutions will not do the job properly in the long-term.
Some issues are obvious risks to health and safety – crumbling buildings, cracked brickwork and anything asbestos-related, for example. Some, though, may seem to be just general maintenance problems, but could develop into bigger issues in time. Old, leaking windows, for example, might be inconvenient, but could also lead to condensation and damp – and this can present a health and safety risk if that damp produces toxic mould.
There are also working conditions to consider. Although there is no minimum or maximum temperature for classrooms in the UK, employers must make sure temperatures in workplaces are “reasonable”, and guidelines suggest 16 to 24 degrees Celsius. If school windows are single-glazed or in need of repair (a problem for some schools in the survey), then a cold winter may mean making a decision on whether to temporarily close the school.
Poor-quality school buildings may also affect learning. A survey in 2012 of schools taking part in Building Schools for the Future (BSF) found that in 62 per cent of the schools sampled, GCSE results were improving at a rate above the national average, while in 73 per cent of schools attendance improved.
While the BSF programme received mixed reviews, this report suggests a correlation between the school environment and pupil attainment. However, a lack of funding can hold school leaders back from investing in school buildings and classrooms.
So how can schools get support to tackle building issues properly? The survey suggests that in the five years since the end of BSF, it has been difficult for school leaders to find the money to keep their schools in good states of repair.
Just under 40 per cent of the school leaders who completed the survey in October 2014 said they had applied for capital funding during the previous 12 months – but only 10 per cent were expecting this to come from central government.
Earlier this year, however, the government promised to invest £6 billion to repair or rebuild dilapidated school buildings. Of that, £2 billion will be allocated to schools that applied to the second phase of the Priority School Building Programme. The remaining £4 billion will go to schools, local authorities, academy trusts and voluntary-aided partnerships over the next three years.
For academies and multi-academy trusts with fewer than five academies there is also the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF). Provided by the Education Funding Agency (EFA), this supports projects addressing building condition issues, such as refurbishing or replacing roofs, windows or toilet areas, and/or compliance issues like fire protection systems, electrical upgrades or asbestos removal.
It is also possible to take out a loan as part of a CIF proposal – the EFA has a calculation tool and affordability tests that academies can use to see what kind of loan they can access and afford to repay.
Larger trusts with at least five academies and more than 3,000 pupils receive a capital funding allocation from the EFA to address priority maintenance and expansion needs, so do not need to apply to the CIF.
Schools can also turn to sources such as Awards for All England – a Lottery-funded initiative that offers grants of up to £10,000. Sport England also awards grants of up to £10,000 for specific, sport-related projects in schools, including projects to improve sports facilities.
All staff and pupils in schools deserve to work and learn in environments that are inspiring and safe. It will be interesting to hear school leaders’ views on the impact of the current programme of investment in school buildings when we run similar surveys on this topic in years to come.
Kate Gilliford is a senior researcher at The Key, a leadership and management support service for schools.