Prime Minister pledges £1bn to rebuild schools but early years miss out again

Fiona Simpson
Monday, June 29, 2020

The government has pledged £1bn of funding for 50 major school building projects in 2021 but early years leaders have criticised the sector’s omission from yet another round of investment.

Boris Johnson says children deserve 'a world class education'. Picture: Parliament TV
Boris Johnson says children deserve 'a world class education'. Picture: Parliament TV

The £1bn fund comes as part of Boris Johnson’s promise to ensure “every child gets a world class education”.

More information on the 50 projects which will take place over the next 10 years will be announced in the autumn with construction of “brand new school buildings” beginning in September 2021, the Prime Minister said.

He also pledged £650m to upgrade dilapidated schools and a further £200m for further education colleges to pay for urgent repairs this year in a bid to help settings “bounce back” from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Announcing the new school rebuilding programme, Johnson said: “All children deserve the best possible start in life – regardless of their background or where they live.

“As we bounce back from the pandemic, it’s important we lay the foundations for a country where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, with our younger generations front and centre of this mission. 

“This major new investment will make sure our schools and colleges are fit for the future, with better facilities and brand new buildings so that every child gets a world-class education.”

School and college leaders have welcomed the funding, which the Department for Education says will be targeted in disadvantaged areas including “substantial investment” in the North and the Midlands.

However, teaching unions have pointed out that in 2017, the National Audit Office estimated it would cost £6.7bn to bring the school estate up to standard.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We welcome the government’s newfound commitment to maintaining school buildings and hope this marks a change in direction.  

“There are currently 3,731 school buildings in urgent need of immediate repair. In 2017, the National Audit Office estimated it would cost £6.7bn to bring the school estate up to standard; that figure will now be much higher because there has been three years of decline. The government has cut annual expenditure on school buildings by more than £1bn in the last two years.

“A building and refurbishment programme is urgently needed.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “I hope today’s announcement will be followed quickly by a package of investment for colleges to be able to help more people get the skills they need to find work, and for the construction, engineering employers to get the skilled people they will need to deliver the infrastructure.

“For colleges, they will be desperate to have the resources quickly, so I hope this is delivered through a simple formula which grants the money with minimum bureaucracy. That way, colleges can invest in the repairs, adaptations, equipment and crucially the digital infrastructure they need to provide a great learning experience from September.”

The announcement led to further disappointment for the early years sector which has already been overlooked in the announcement of a £1bn catch up plan for schools following the coronavirus crisis.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: “This announcement does not include even a penny towards a child’s most important, formative years.

“NDNA has been campaigning hard for urgent support through a recovery and transformation fund to get childcare providers through these tough times and remain sustainable into the future.

“We would ask the government to urgently rethink its strategy to make sure they invest early on in a child’s life, which sets them off on the right path and also saves money on their later education.

“Many nurseries are on the brink of closure, having remained open to a small number of critical workers’ children over the past few months and losing money week by week. Those that have closed are now struggling to reopen due to lack of financial support and reduced income from parental fees. This support is needed urgently now before nurseries have to make that tough decision to close permanently.”

The funding comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told BBC Breakfast that he hoped to issue a “detailed” plan to get all children back to school in September “by the end of the week”.

Although Williamson was unable to give any further details he admitted that once schools had fully reopened localised closures of settings or year groups would be “likely”.

When asked if schools would be expected to stick to social distancing measures in the autumn he said: “It’s not about one metre or two metres, it’s about a whole set of different controls and actions that ensure schools can operate in a safe and secure environment.”

In a separate interview with LBC, Williamson also hinted that fines for absences from schools would be reinstated in September.

He said: “Unless there is a good reason for the absence then we will be looking at the fact that we would be imposing fines on families if they are not sending their children back”.

The suggestions echoes comments from Boris Johnson made over the weekend in which he said low numbers of pupils returning to school was “a deep source of frustration”.

In an interview with the Radio Times, the Prime Minister urged teaching unions to “say loud and clear” that schools are safe, adding: “We need everybody to understand school is safe, the years that can go back should go back.

“It would be very helpful if our friends in the teaching unions really delivered that message loud and clear, and some of the councils.”

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