The government failed to carry out detailed surveys that would reveal problems such as asbestos and unstable concrete before buying up sites for its flagship free schools, an Observer investigation has found.
Free schools were launched by Michael Gove in 2010 with the promise that they would transform education in England. More than 650 are currently open. Gove made much of the fact that ministers would be tearing up planning laws to enable groups of teachers, parents and charities to set up schools in old offices, shops and houses.
However, documents seen by the Observer reveal that in some cases there was such haste to open large numbers of these new schools that the government agency tasked with buying the sites purchased “unsuitable” disused buildings without first undertaking the detailed surveys that experts insist are essential.
This led to some refurbishments running millions of pounds over budget while thousands of other state schools struggled with leaking, decaying buildings in urgent need of repair following the government’s axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010. One of the most egregious examples is the purchase of a derelict Royal Mail sorting office to house England’s largest free school, Northampton International Academy. Its lengthy refurbishment cost over £40m because it was beset with so many problems. A report in 2017 concluded that there had been “insufficient survey work” before building started.
Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in London, where no surveys for asbestos were conducted before purchase. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Despite the refurbishment, the school was last week named as one of the 147 schools and education settings with confirmed reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac). It was forced to close the top floor of its main building, including 18 classrooms, in what it stressed was a “precautionary” measure.
Danielle Stone, a Labour councillor in Northampton, told the Observer that she questioned the suitability of this building at the outset, which she describes as backing on to Northampton’s “red light district” in an area which is notorious as a “hangout for drug dealers”.
Stone said it was “incredible that no one has been able to show there was a proper survey on the concrete”. “We all knew [when it was refurbished] we had a problem with concrete decay – which we used to call concrete cancer – in buildings like this built in the 60s or 70s,” she added.
In another case, the government’s Education Funding Agency (EFA)bought a former air traffic control training site next to Bournemouth airport to house Parkfield free school, on the basis of a four-page vendor’s report. Detailed surveys including asbestos were not carried out until after the purchase. The rebuild was plagued with problems, including a protected colony of bats, asbestos and even the potential threat of unexploded bombs from the second world war.
The Department for Education (DfE) said at the time that a new risk assessment on possible explosives had shown the area to be “as safe as any in the south of England”. Parkfield’s headteacher also reassured parents that all dangerous asbestos would be removed before they took possession of the building.
Tim Warneford, a consultant who advises academies on their estate, said: “This beggars belief. There isn’t an expert around who would say doing detailed surveys after you’ve bought the place is best practice. Where is your leverage to negotiate on price? The horse has already bolted.”
Andy Jolley, a campaigner who has been investigating asbestos in schools and shared the documents with the Observer, said: “While other schools were in desperate need of rebuilding and repairs, there are estimates that the government ended up spending around £35m on Parkfield’s unsuitable site, half of which had to be knocked down.”
He added: “The government is claiming Raac is just an inherited problem, but free schools rest entirely with them. They were buying buildings without proper detailed surveys first to understand the risks.”
The Observer has seen two light-touch “overview surveys” commissioned before the EFA purchased two new free school buildings in London, which flagged concrete as a risk. One said that because of its age and construction, the building was “at risk of containing deleterious concrete” and recommended detailed testing.
The agency and the DfE declined to release details about many schools, but from what it did release we know that it bought at least 10 free schools without doing any detailed survey for asbestos first. These included two of the most high-profile schools for the free school movement – the Michaela school led by Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young’s West London free school. Tests were later carried out before refurbishments began.
The Northampton International Academy has closed its top floors due to safety fears over Raac. Photograph: Stephen Faulkner/Alamy
The government agency suggested in its freedom of information responses that this was not uncommon. “It is often not possible or practical to conduct the full intrusive surveys required before we take full possession of a site,” it said.
A spokesperson for the DfE said: “The department works closely with LocatED – the government-owned property company responsible for buying and developing free school sites – and remains committed to acquiring suitable, safe and affordable sites in order to deliver more school places.
“Technical experts carry out due diligence prior to acquisition, making sure sites are safe. The risks associated with these sites, including any technical issues such as asbestos, are taken in full consideration as part of the acquisition process.
“This is in line with standard industry practice.”