School buildings across Britain are crumbling. In light of this, the National Audit Office (NAO) has raised the official risk of structural collapses occurring to ‘very likely’.
An estimated 38% of school buildings – 24,000 in total – have passed their design lifespan, placing the lives of at least 700,000 students at risk.
Yet the Tories are sitting on their hands, happy to watch the cracks widen.
The issues we see today go back to after the Second World War, where increasing demand for schools was coupled with shortages of materials.
To cut costs, common construction practice included the use of budget-friendly materials such as Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). This continued to be the case up until the mid-1990s.
Today, this poses a serious threat to life in hundreds of schools.
To date, the Department of Education (DfE) has identified some 15,000 schools built with RAAC. Classified as a ‘critical’ risk factor in school buildings, RAAC has a lifespan of only 30 years, and is susceptible to sudden failure and collapse, particularly when wet.
In 2018, an RAAC roof suddenly collapsed at Singlewell Primary School in Gravesend. There were no warning signals until the evening before, leaving little time to respond.
Thankfully, this happened on a weekend, so no one was hurt. But children and teachers cannot rely on luck alone. The Tories are recklessly playing with lives.
Over the last decade, the Tories have made cut after cut to bail out the sinking capitalist system. One of the first costs to be thrown overboard has been the long-term maintenance of public infrastructure such as schools.
The DfE has stated that a budget of £5.3 billion per year is the minimum that would be necessary to safely maintain schools. Yet on average since 2016, the government has spent only £2.3 billion.
Despite years of knowledge of the danger of RAAC, lack of DfE funding means only a portion of the schools identified as at risk have undergone full, professional investigation.
Even fewer have successfully undergone repairs and reconstruction, in order to eliminate the risk entirely and allow students to safely continue with their education.
Where schools have been shut, alternative buildings and sites have ranged from poor quality temporary buildings, to none at all, with some children forced to return to remote learning indefinitely.
This prioritisation of profits over lives is not isolated to school buildings, but is the case across all public services.
For instance, treatment in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn is currently provided in spaces held together by over 2,400 steel posts. After heavily-deteriorated RAAC was identified in the hospital’s walls and ceilings, it is now awaiting the outcome of funding bids for repairs.
We already know how this story ends. We know the catastrophic consequences of these risks, which the Tories and bosses are willing to subject working-class communities to.
The deliberate use of cheaper, flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower resulted in the deaths of 72 people in 2017, after fire engulfed the building. Hundreds more were injured and displaced from their homes.
Six years later, some 10,000 blocks still use flammable cladding. Schools have even been built with it, even after the Grenfell disaster.
The Tories have pledged to rebuild 500 schools within a decade to fix this crisis. But even if this promise is met, how can we trust that these will be built safely, without flammable cladding or worse?
And what are people supposed to do in the meantime, with thousands facing the ‘very likely’ structural collapse of the buildings that they work and live in every day?
What is clear is that public ownership alone of these buildings is not enough to guarantee our safety.
After all, to ensure the profits of the capitalists, the construction industry will always cut corners, and the provision of public funding will always be slashed to the minimum.
Wait times for repairs will get longer. And another scandalous use of substandard materials will emerge at some point down the line.
To remedy the situation we see today, we must fight for the construction industry to be nationalised and placed under workers’ control. To fund rebuilds and repairs, we must expropriate the wealth that sits idle in the hands of the billionaires and bankers.
With this, we will be able to rebuild our schools, hospitals, and homes to the highest safety standards – helping to provide the quality education, healthcare, and housing that the working class needs and deserves.