New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
  2. Education
1 September 2023

Britain’s crumbling schools are the result of an investment crisis

Pupils return to home-education after the Department of Education deems 156 schools structurally unsafe.

By Will Dunn

Thousands of parents who have spent six weeks juggling work and childcare at an estimated cost of £943 per child are now scrambling to make arrangements after the Department for Education announced, with almost no warning, that they face an undetermined period of home-schooling because 156 schools have been deemed structurally unsafe.

Meanwhile, Grant Shapps has entered his fifth Cabinet position in a year in which he’s had a go at being Transport Secretary, Home Secretary, Business Secretary, Energy Secretary and Defence Secretary. In his tour of the Cabinet table Shapps has averaged just over ten months (331 days, according to my spreadsheet) in each seat.

These facts are not unconnected.

An environment of rolling political turmoil serves survivors like Shapps, but political instability eventually translates into literal, physical instability in the public realm. The uncertainty that the Secretary of State for Failing Up represents is perhaps the biggest threat to public and private investment in the UK.

It has been known since the 1990s that the reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete (RAAC) used in schools, hospitals and other public buildings from the 1950s to the 1980s had a safe lifespan of about 30 years. The first major collapse happened five years ago, in 2018, but none of the seven different Education Secretaries the Conservative Party has fielded since then has needed to do the hard work of finding the money to fix the problem. Finding investment would have been a battle – from 2010 to 2022, real-terms capital spending on schools halved – and not one worth taking on if you expect to spend less than a year in the job.

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The same malaise affects businesses, which pleaded for an end to the “circus” this time last year, and which still have to plan around gaping unknowns such as when, if ever, post-Brexit import checks (delayed again this month) will be imposed.

Rather than addressing uncertainty, Jeremy Hunt’s economic policies seem designed to inject it into the next parliament. Harsh spending cuts that will kick in from 2025 and business investment allowance that will vanish after three years are traps that limit Labour’s options. It’s crafty politics, designed to minimise the Conservatives’ time in opposition, but businesses do not run on guesswork; this uncertainty means they simply will not invest.

The cost is dizzying: in the two years after the Brexit vote, business investment in the UK grew at a third of the rate of the rest of the G7, and since 2019 British businesses have invested less, as a percentage of GDP, than any other major economy. In June the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated a £350bn shortfall in private investment since 2005, relative to the G7 average, coupled with more than a £200bn shortfall in public investment. The Bank of England’s most recent monetary policy report forecasts that business investment will fall by around 2 per cent in 2024.  

Without confidence and investment, the growth upon which both parties’ hopes rest will simply not arrive. The only thing uncertainty is good for is a political CV: wait long enough (say, 332 days) in Reshuffle Britain, and it can all be someone else’s fault.   

[See also: What to expect from Claire Coutinho]

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