Raindrops keep falling on our heads

12th October 2018 at 00:00
Buckets to catch rainwater, electrical failures and classrooms that are unfit for habitation: this is the day-to-day reality in the schools that have become dilapidated after years of government underinvestment – and as austerity persists, their numbers are set to grow. So what is it like teaching and learning in these conditions? And what impact do crumbling buildings have on educational standards? John Roberts speaks to school leaders struggling to keep a roof over their pupils’ heads

As Garrett Murray drives along the motorway, he has a sinking feeling.

Heavy rain is pounding on the roof of his car and the grey skies above are showing no signs of letting up. The rain isn’t a problem while he is driving but he knows it will be a different story when he gets to school.

Murray is the deputy head of St John Fisher Catholic College in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. The main school building was constructed in the 1960s and these days the school relies on 12 temporary classrooms that have been in place for more than a decade.

On the day when the school has agreed to speak to Tes about the conditions it is working in, the rain is coming into the main building. Murray has to close off two science labs and a design and technology room because of the water’s proximity to electrical equipment.

“We have had the roofs done,” he says. “But the building is old and is deteriorating, and when we get heavy rain this happens. There has been a flood in one of the rooms. As I was driving in today, I knew what to expect.”

The deputy head does not seem shocked by this situation. It’s not an emergency; in fact, it’s routine.

And he’s not the only one dealing with this kind of incident. According to school leaders, coping with buildings that are not fit for purpose is now a widespread issue.

The days when billions of pounds were spent on ambitious showpiece new school builds are long gone. In 2012, Michael Gove, then education secretary, set the tone for the years that have followed when he said that the government did not want award-winning architects designing schools because “no one in this room is here to make architects richer”.

Today, school rebuilding is done on a much smaller scale, and headteachers’ hopes for the future have been scaled down, too. But what does this mean for the education that schools can deliver? And what is it like for teachers working in a dilapidated building?

Murray is frustrated by the facilities that the staff and pupils have available to them but he is determined not to let this define his school.

“The temporary classrooms came to us in 2006, and they were 20 years old then. These buildings have a shelf life of 10 years,” he says. “In the winter we have ice on the inside of these windows and in the summer a classroom of children are sweating just sitting still. I remember when I first joined the school and was told this was where I would be teaching – I thought they were joking.

“I had come from a convent school in North London to this, and the difference is incredible. It does not feel like we are a school in a developed country with the facilities we have available to us.”

Despite all of this, the school is proud of what it achieves. Its last Ofsted inspection rated it as “good” and improving. But even in this positive report, there is no getting away from the state of the building.

It says: “Pupils’ only consistent criticism of the school is the poor condition of the toilets and several pupils shared this opinion with inspectors.”

Head Theresa Madden jokes: “I often say we must be the only school in the country to have the state of our toilets brought up in an Ofsted inspection.”

However, the fact remains that this is an otherwise glowing report about a good school. Nobody could claim that the building is stopping the school from doing its job. So does the condition of school buildings really matter as much as we are led to believe?

“Yes,” is the firm answer from the head of a similarly blighted, yet successful, secondary 70 miles north in West Yorkshire.

As Tony Guise walks up the path to Calder High School, he looks up at the grey, flat roof the 1960s structure and says: “It’s grim, isn’t it?”

It’s hard to disagree. The school, in Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge, is aiming to expand and achieves some of the best results in the district. But from the outside, it looks like a downtrodden and uncared-for place.

‘Wheelie bins to catch water’

Guise takes Tes on a tour that is opposite in tone to an estate agent trying to sell a house, pointing out the many problems with the building. For the past two days, the weather has been as bleak as the surroundings. Strong winds have blown a window out, meaning that part of the playground is now out of bounds, while heavy rain has led to leaks, closing classrooms and causing lighting to fail.

There is mould on the classroom walls, concrete window sills are breaking away and the sports facilities consist of two small rooms ridden with damp. There is also a serious lack of space, with nowhere for the 1,200 pupils to go when the weather forces them indoors.

In the centre of the school is the staff meeting room – actually a tatty temporary classroom with a damaged outer wall and crumbling plaster that looks like it might not survive another storm.

“We don’t have a swanky boardroom,” says Guise. “We meet in here.” Even the pupils passing by look slightly baffled at the state of the building.

“We hoped this would be the first winter where we didn’t have to worry about the rain. We have had work done on the roof, but water has come in again today,” Guise explains. “We regularly had to get blue wheelie bins into the classrooms to catch the rain water.”

The situation, he says, is demoralising for everyone who works there: “When teachers are driving up standards and getting students ready to succeed and face the world, and they are doing it with buckets in the classroom, or they are having to tell pupils they can’t put the lights on today, it is depressing.”

A recognition of just how demoralising it can be to teach in dilapidated buildings is partly what prompted New Labour to act in the mid 2000s. The government pledged £55 billion to rebuild every secondary through the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

The shiny new buildings that followed were sometimes very expensive. But they were seen as a physical representation of the value that ministers were placing on state education. If “starchitects” and glass palaces were good enough for banks and lawyers, then why shouldn’t the institutions with the all-important job of educating the next generation benefit from them as well?

Victims of austerity

That was the thinking, at least. But the idea was overturned as public spending was cut. BSF was one of the first victims of the age of austerity in 2010, when Gove scrapped it amid criticism that it was wasteful and bureaucratic.

The BSF programme was also criticised by some of those who missed out, who claimed it was not focused on the buildings in the worst condition. This frustration is felt by Madden and Murray at St John Fisher in Staffordshire, which did not receive BSF money before the scheme was cancelled. But Newcastle-under-Lyme is next door to Stoke-on-Trent, which did benefit.

This means that a few miles down the road there are schools with similar intakes and similar challenges that are working in state-of-the-art buildings while St John Fisher is waiting to replace 12 temporary classrooms.

“I do get upset when I see this,” Madden says, “because I think of what we could achieve if we had these facilities.

“We have been fortunate to secure some funding to replace our temporary classrooms, and a loan for lighting. However, the poor condition of the building is such that, although we are very grateful for what we have received, we are unable to maintain some parts of the school.

“We had to dip into reserves to replace some of the pupil toilets. There are still some that are awful, but we do not have enough money to refurbish them to a standard that is acceptable. We work hard to maintain a poor environment but it is like putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed.”

On paper, the current government’s Priority School Building Programme might have offered more hope for those schools in the worst condition that missed out on BSF cash. But it was revealed this year that the scheme was being delivered more slowly than forecast – with a 64 per cent underspend.

Now joint Tes and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) research has confirmed that there are widespread problems with this country’s school estate. The survey of 221 heads reveals that 155 work in school buildings that are not fit for purpose. And almost half of this group have had to close some part of their school site in the past year as a result.

Funding, or rather a lack of it, is at the root of the issue. Less than 1 per cent of heads surveyed said they had enough money to carry out all the work that needed doing in their school and just one in five had sufficient funding to carry out essential work.

“School buildings should be places that are conducive to learning – in a good state of repair, with appropriate space and reliable electrics, boilers and plumbing,” says Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary. “Unfortunately, this is not remotely the case in many schools because of government underinvestment in this vital part of our national infrastructure.”

According to the National Audit Office, the Department for Education has estimated that it would cost £6.7 billion to get the entire school estate into a satisfactory condition and another £7.1 billion to ensure all buildings were good. The DfE also acknowledged that the cost of returning all school buildings to satisfactory or better condition was expected double between 2015-16 and 2020-21.

The problem is, with squeezed budgets afflicting everyone in education from the DfE down to the smallest primary, the chances of that kind of money materialising seem remote. More and more schools are going to have to pull off the same trick as Calder High and St John Fisher, and succeed despite their deteriorating buildings.

You don’t have to spend long talking to Guise to appreciate just how difficult that is. “We are literally crossing our fingers that the boiler is not going to go, or another roof isn’t going to go,” he says. “There is a corridor where the lights have blown because of water ingress. That is a big job. I am thinking, ‘That’s half a teacher’s salary or that’s another support staff member’, and schools are working on the bones of their arses.”

Yet, during his time at Calder High, GCSE results have improved from 52 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C grades, including English and maths, to 73 per cent. So how does Guise manage it?

“I am lucky to have amazing staff who achieve amazing outcomes,” he says. “Some teachers are very good at creating a brilliant learning environment in a crap room.

“Or sometimes the kids can look beyond the room they are in through fantastic teaching. I say at open evenings and I say it when I do staff interviews: nobody comes in for the buildings. A great teacher can take children out of their surroundings.”

Ingenuity abounds

Calder High has worked hard to transcend its physical environment. In the old caretaker’s house, a class of around 15 children are being taught in what looks like a modest-sized bedroom but feels like a classroom.

Again, Guise credits the care and skill of his teachers for making it work.

Another headteacher makes the same point about the need for teachers to be inventive and flexible. The head, who has asked to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardise funding bids, says that his primary has been beset with leaks and asbestos issues.

“On the inside our building looks great, but it is because we set up displays and move furniture so that we are hiding how bad it actually is,” he explains.

“Teachers have to be prepared for the problems the buildings present. It is distracting when you try to teach and children are counting the drops in a bucket catching rainwater or the electrics go. But [teachers] have to stop and think of something they were planning to do later in the week that doesn’t need electricity.”

Murray says schools also have to be resourceful. “You have to be creative with how you spend your money and you have to look for the funding that is out there. Identify the charities that might be able to award you school grants,” he adds. “In the past we have redecorated the school with paint that the headteacher bought herself. We shouldn’t have to do this, but we do.”

Guise says pupils’ pride in their school as a whole is the key to overcoming the poor state of its buildings.

“I think it’s difficult for students to take pride in their school if everything is as shabby as the buildings,” he admits. “But here they are proud of their uniform, proud of their teachers, and we have great relationships. With the building itself, it is difficult and I don’t see a way out for us.

“Our kids are our biggest asset and I would love to give them a nice shiny building to come to school in, but we can’t. The bottom line is, it just isn’t fair.”

John Roberts is a reporter for Tes

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