Tuesday 14 November should have been a normal school day. For pupils at the Sir Frederick Gibberd College in Harlow, Essex, however, it was the first time they’d been into their school in over two weeks.
Since the start of the academic year, all pupils (apart from year sevens) at the school have missed out on the best part of a month of in-person teaching. They have been living their own private lockdown, thanks to a £3bn scandal at the heart of government.
On Monday 21 August, as the long summer break stretched to a close, parents were looking ahead to the start of term in two weeks, wrapping up family holidays and childcare plans. But that day they received a letter from Dee Conlon, the headteacher, and Helena Mills, chief executive of the school’s trust, BMAT Education: the school would no longer open on 6 September. No new date was confirmed.
The main building and sports hall had been closed, with immediate effect, on instruction from the Department for Education (DfE). Cracks had appeared in the walls, and the gym had flooded. Inspections over Easter by the department found such poor workmanship that it would impact “the longevity of the buildings”, structural defects and fire safety concerns. The buildings were deemed too weak to withstand high winds, major snowfall or a vehicle collision.
The inspection reports, by private consultancies Arup and Aecom, haven’t been made public. The DfE refused to release them through a freedom of information request, responding that “releasing the information would damage our commercial relationship” with the companies.
Year sevens were sent to a separate school, a 20-minute bus-ride away. The rest were stuck at home in remote lessons from 6-14 September, 30 October to 14 November and 21 November up until the time of writing. Robert Halfon, the local Conservative MP and an education minister, has said in the past that “remote learning is a poor substitute to classrooms… disadvantaged pupils learn the least… It also puts an enormous burden on the parents”. He declined an interview request, but the New Statesman understands his colleague in the Lords, Diana Barran, the minister responsible for school buildings, will address parents at a meeting on 30 November.
This is a brand-new school. It cost £29m to build and was completed in 2021. As a free school with the capacity for 1,700 pupils in Harlow – a deprived postwar new town that was once the future – it was a timber-clad temple to the aspirational Tory dream. Now, it awaits a demolition notice.
As drizzle coated the Rich Tea-golden façades of the box-fresh college, pupils sat in long white marquees lining the sodden playing fields. This was their second taste of tent-based learning. The first had been disastrous.
I’m told that mould appeared as condensation built up in the marquees, which had been supplied by the Department for Education. The temporary “Glastonbury-style” toilets – which pupils had to go outside for – were cold and unhygienic. Pupils struggled to concentrate over the noise of wind and neighbouring classes, while the marquees were either too hot or too cold. Plastic on the mesh in front of the overworked radiators melted. Metal floor tiles became slippery and some went missing.
Pupils feared the roof could “fly away” in high winds. A teacher reportedly slipped over on a ramp in heavy rain. One boy was so cold he wore gloves through every lesson. Mark Ingall, the father of a girl in year nine and a boy in year seven at the school, told me his daughter had burned herself on the melted plastic of the struggling heaters.
As winter drew in, the pupils were ousted from the tents and sent home. Ingall, a supply teacher, couldn’t pick up shifts as he had to stay in to supervise his daughter. Parents received little notice of the closures. “I couldn’t go to work,” Ingall told me. “Parents have lost out on earnings.”
Their children are falling behind. “The reality of teenagers working from home is they’re on their phones to their friends and the teachers are droning on the laptop,” said a grandfather of two GCSE-year students. “It’s not learning – it’s a disgrace.”
I went to visit when they returned to the tents on 14 November. Not much had improved. The toilets were “still so awful” and tents “far from adequate”. Numerous younger pupils joined waiting lists for other schools, reluctant to spend their GCSE years in these conditions.
The following Monday, they were told not to go in for the third time. As late as 6.56am, parents received a message informing them that the school couldn’t open due to an “unforeseen power issue”. Again, they had to stay off work last-minute and their children were stuck at home.
Thieves had broken in at the weekend and stolen thousands of pounds’ worth of power cables, according to separate correspondence seen by the New Statesman. They had breached the security the DfE was supposed to be paying for on the site.
A trust spokesperson said portable cabins would begin to replace the tents next spring, and they were looking “forward to clarity in the future on our main buildings”. They didn’t criticise the government. One teacher told me the school was concerned about damaging the trust’s relationship with the DfE, which it’s relying on for the new temporary buildings and any remedial work.
Harlow’s children aren’t the only ones. As the story broke over the summer that hundreds of older schools built with unsafe concrete would have to close, another scandal was hitting newly built academies around the country.
In Cornwall, Newquay Primary Academy (begun in 2021 and meant to open that year) had to be torn down and started again, as did Launceston Primary School (also 2021). Sky Academy, a new school planned to open this year at the Eden Project, was described in the trade press as “flattened before it was finished”. Buckton Fields Primary School in Northampton (completed 2021) and Haygrove School in Somerset (2020) have been forced to close their buildings while awaiting demolition decisions.
In all, nearly 5,000 pupils have been displaced, stuck at home, or left without a prospective school place while parents and staff are in limbo. None of the schools I’ve heard from have seen their inspection reports.
Responsibility for the condemned buildings lies with the Department for Education, which launched a £3bn school building programme in 2020. One of its approved contractors was Caledonian Modular, a firm specialising in “off-site construction”. This is a vogueish building method – whereby structures are prefabricated at a plant then transported to the location semi-complete – now being promoted through numerous government programmes. It’s cheaper and quicker than conventional development, but it’s also riskier: if the main constructor goes bust, the entire project is jeopardised. Caledonian Modular went under last March, £20m in debt.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Following surveys conducted at our request, we identified concerns with building work carried out by a specific contractor that is no longer in business. We are currently investigating how this happened and consulting lawyers on next steps.”
Exam-year pupils who have missed out on in-person teaching won’t have this disruption taken into account in their grades. The department would not tell the New Statesman why it contracted Caledonian Modular for these projects in the first place. The company’s accounts showed that in the year to March 2020 its income shrank by £5m and pre-tax losses rose from £739,000 to £2.8m. It was not a member of the UK’s trade body for modular construction, Make UK Modular.
“We are continuing to press the DfE daily to confirm any medium- and long-term plans,” said Aaron Reid, the headteacher of Haygrove School, a secondary school of 1,106 students. He has had to install temporary accommodation and introduce a “four-day week” at his school.
“We are still awaiting an update [on demolition] following the ongoing inspection work,” said Paul Watson, chief executive of Preston Hedges Trust, which runs Buckton Fields Primary School. This update was due in November, but at the time of writing had not arrived. “We are keen to understand this and next steps.” Children are bussed to nearby Pineham Barns Primary School instead; the journey should take 20 minutes, but one local parent tells me they are regularly stuck in traffic beyond 9am.
As I dug further into public contracts for modular construction, I found havoc playing out across Britain beyond schools.
The Ministry of Defence is now assessing the safety of accommodation blocks for nearly 2,000 military personnel at the Worthy Down training base in Hampshire and the Defence College of Technical Training in Wiltshire, having paid Caledonian Modular £40.5m and £14m respectively for these projects since 2018. While no structural defects have yet been reported, a spokesperson said “we take safety extremely seriously and are working to identify whether there are any affected sites”.
A thousand students and private residents were evacuated from the Caledonian-built Paragon Estate housing block in Brentford, west London, in October 2020 because of structural and fire safety defects and have never moved back. It will take £72m of refurbishment work to make the homes safe. The 528-bed Studytel student block in Penryn, Cornwall, known locally as the “Purple Carbuncle”, which cost £40m and was due to open in 2021, has never been completed – it now sits rotting and graffitied.
As ageing public infrastructure like hospitals, schools and prisons creak under years of under-investment, the term “crumbling Britain” has become commonplace. For a country that struggles to build, it’s a dire indictment that even its newest additions to the public estate are crumbling too.
[See also: A state in disrepair]
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style