Back to school? Don’t forget your hard-hat

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning,
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile

I don’t really understand enough about the properties of concrete to really have much of an idea about the whys and wherefores of using RAAC in schools and public buildings, but I do know that cancelling a huge industry-wide maintenance programme without fully understanding the implications or replacing it with an alternative, is short-sighted in the extreme.

Yet that is exactly what the then Education Secretary Michael Gove did, in 2010 with the Building Schools for the Future programme. The unintended consequences of that act are now being felt in 147 schools across the UK. It’s only a small percentage of the total number of schools in the country, but it’s enough to throw some light on the way that school repairs and maintenance have been marginalised in the past 13 years.

Why was RAAC used? Because it was lightweight, easy to handle, with low thermal and good acoustic properties. It was also a cheaper option than alternatives. However, it has, as it turns out, a lifespan that was less than initially thought. Some concrete will last for eons – the Pantheon for example – so it’s not the material itself that’s the issue, so much as what you do with it to make it fit your requirements. Actually, the main issue is how well you check that it is still fit for purpose, and that, when you find out that it might not be, as happened in 2018, you actually do something about it.

The Building Schools for the Future programme, launched by Tony Blair’s labour Government in 2003. By the time Gove took the hatchet to it, it was costing £55bn. Announcing its cancellation in the Commons, Gove said: “the whole way that we build schools needs radical reform to ensure more public money is not wasted on pointless bureaucracy”. Although he has since said that cancelling it was one of his worst mistakes in politics, he wasn’t wrong in that it needed to be rethought, and over-hauled as a scheme.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in cancelling a programme that’s not working, but where the mistake was made was in not replacing it, immediately, with something else that would work, that would continue to repair, redevelop and maintain the material health of our school buildings.

Just like the sell-off of the council houses in the 1980s. There isn’t really anything bad about giving people a chance to own their own homes. But for goodness’ sake, allow the councils to replace them. Not doing so was a massive mistake. Huge. Instead we have a range of complicated part rent-part buy shared ownership schemes and a reliance on a profit motivated private rentals as the only alternative to home ownership. Oh, and HelptoBuy which caused as many problems as it solved.

In cancelling, but not properly replacing, Building Schools for the Future, Gove and the Chancellors who hacked the schools budget in the interim – I’m looking at you, Prime Minister – were no better than teenagers who finish the orange juice in the fridge, but don’t replace the empty carton with a full one. But the possible consequences could be far worse.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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