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Headteachers fight for funds to shore up England’s dilapidated classrooms

By Michael Savage
Headteacher Pepe Di’Iasio, and buckets, at Wales high school near Rotherham in south Yorkshire.
Headteacher Pepe Di’Iasio, and buckets, at Wales high school near Rotherham in south Yorkshire. Photograph: Tristan Potter/SWNS/Mirrorpix

When it rains, the pupils at Wales high school, south Yorkshire, know to look out for numerous obstacles as they move around the building - buckets, lots of buckets.

“On a rainy day, it’s commonplace to see a dozen buckets around the school,” said headteacher Pepe Di’Iasio. “You can’t do anything long term. We’re just patching over the roof and doing the various things that we can. We have flat roofs, asbestos throughout the place and an old energy system that uses heavy amounts. We have a building that we heat up every day and the heating goes straight up out of the roof.”

Inspectors have told him that his school, in Kiveton Park, near Rotherham, is among the bottom 200 in terms of its condition. Yet with only 50 schools accepted for the government’s school rebuilding plan each year, most of those will have to wait.

“When you consider the increased energy costs at the moment, that’s waiting another year when energy costs have increased by over 100% and students are in inadequate buildings,” Di’Iasio said.

When the Labour MP for York Central, Rachael Maskell, visited a local outstanding school, she was amazed at what she was shown. Education at All Saints Roman Catholic school is highly regarded, but Maskell was left in no doubt that it was no environment for teaching.

First day of term for Year 7 pupils at Wales high school near Rotherham in 2021.
First day of term for Year 7 pupils at Wales high school near Rotherham in 2021. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer

“Music takes place in an old aircraft hangar, which is freezing cold or boiling hot in the summer,” she said. “You’ve got the gym, where feet are going through the floors. There are issues with water ingress. It’s a place with a fantastic history, but for a modern school today, it doesn’t serve that purpose.”

The school is also among those to have made a bid for funding. Yet while a lucky few will be successful, it is now clear that both teachers across the country and figures within Whitehall believe a far bigger pot of money is needed.

Education figures track the problems back to big cuts to the budgets for school buildings back in 2010.

“When I took over 13 years ago, we had real problems,” said Paul Gosling, headteacher at Exeter Road community primary school in Exmouth, Devon. “We had a pitched roof and water running down three of the classroom walls when it rained.

“It was a sorry state, there were bits of asbestos in places, making it difficult to do any remedial work. The whole roof needed a replacement. We were given a quote of £700,000 for it. We used to have about £45,000 capital funding, but in 2010, that was reduced. Our £45,000 went down to £7,000 – I did say to my governors that we’ve got to save up for 100 years, then we can do the roof.”

When water started running over electricity boxes and the school sought help from the local MP, it was granted funds for rebuilding work, which was finished last year. But as regional branch secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, he is aware of many other schools that haven’t been so lucky.

“One school has three temporary classrooms that are rotting and falling apart, and not fit for 21st century education. Devon has a stock of 300-odd schools. In a two-year period, we were only one of four schools getting that sort of major investment. There’s no way that system of pooling the money is going to address the needs that we’ve got. There are many schools that are falling into some real disrepair.”

The rebuilt Exeter Road community primary school in Exmouth. Work began after water started running over electricity boxes.
The rebuilt Exeter Road community primary school in Exmouth. Work began after water started running over electricity boxes. Photograph: Handout

The bill for school repairs certainly seems to be growing. Last year, an official audit found that schools in England face a repair bill of more than £11bn, almost double some previous estimates.

Several teachers also pointed out that the current system for funding repairs was inefficient. Schools often spent money patching up their buildings, shortly before they were finally granted funding for a rebuild. They said schools should be told about funding awards further in advance.

Maskell said that she was aware of other schools in her constituency facing similar problems to All Saints. She, too, said that spiking energy costs were making the situation even more urgent.

“Many have old heating systems. With the cost of living going up, you’re going to end up heating up York – and you’re going to pay for it.

“All Saints is a fantastic school. It does remarkably well and has a reputation for caring and supporting its pupils. You just think, if it had a decent school environment, too, what more could be achieved there,” Maskell said.

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Dive Deeper:
England’s crumbling schools are a ‘risk to life’, officials warn No 10
Exclusive: Leak reveals that the education department is battling with the Treasury for £13bn needed for rebuilding projects
How life at school has changed in the past 120 years
Children at Millbank Primary in Cardiff are celebrating its opening in 1902 and learning what school was like at the…
Working in Exeter and all about commute costs, rents and businesses based there
BusinessLive profiles Exeter as a place to work, the best cafes to plug in, commuter costs, house prices and job…
Abandoned church left in ruins transformed into beautiful mosque and community hub
The Grade II listed building has been given a new lease of life, and will soon be a base for…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Nigeria: Pastoralist crisis survivors get second chance at school
Globally, Nigeria has the highest rate of out-of-school children. A volunteer is working to reduce the numbers.
Flood-hit Northern Rivers legal practices struggling as system grinds to a halt amid intense demand
They help some of society's most vulnerable people, yet these legal practices are barely coping themselves after floods ravaged northern…
Get all your news in one place