By Eleanor Tait
Labour MP for the City of Durham, Mary Kelly Foy, raised concerns in the House of Commons on 21st November over the problems facing staff and students at “RAAC infested” St Leonard’s Catholic School, near Aykley Heads.
In the debate with the new Minister of State for Schools Damian Hinds, Ms. Foy outlined issues including the significant financial pressures on the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust which looks after St Leonard’s, as well as a lack of specialist facilities and exam mitigations for its 1500 students; their education has now been disrupted for over 11 weeks following the discovery of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in several of the school’s buildings.
St Leonard’s was closed in September by the Department for Education (DfE) when a Government report revealed the presence of RAAC, which eventually identified 214 schools nationwide by October as having potentially dangerous RAAC.
RAAC is a type of concrete with only temporary durability which was frequently used in the construction of schools, and other public buildings, from 1950s to the 1990s. Given that this building material was designed to last approximately 30 years, concerns have been raised over the safety of buildings with RAAC, many of which have been standing for significantly longer than this period.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Ms. Foy reminded ministers that of the £450,000 spent by the Trust to return students to in-person teaching, only £50,000 of which had been reimbursed by the Government. Ms. Foy further noted that when Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System and Student Finance, visited St Leonard’s, she had “told us that money would be no object” but that the lack of funding since, left the school community feeling “abandoned.”
In addition, Ms. Foy discussed students’ lack of access to specialist facilities, particularly drawing attention to the difficulties faced by students with special educational needs, as well as those eligible for free school meals. Remarking on the lack of hot catering facilities, Ms. Foy stated that: “I am really concerned because they receive only packed lunches at the moment, rather than hot meals.”
St Leonard’s students were able to return to in-person teaching on 30th October in temporary classroom set-ups, which have utilised the school’s sports hall and space leased at Ushaw College, a former seminary, paid for by the DfE.
Whilst these provisions have enabled students to return to in-person teaching, Ms. Foy emphasised the unsuitability of these environments as the academic year progresses, noting that “for those studying design and technology, music, sciences and specialist subjects, the disruptions are ongoing: there are no labs, no music rooms, and no workshops available. She went on to describe the sports hall as a “noisy” learning environment, where students are currently being taught in “classes of up to 60.”
Citing these issues, Ms. Foy urged Mr. Hinds to increase the pace of delivering essential facilities for St Leonard’s students, stating that the ongoing disruptions were impacting the “mental health of the parents” in addition to the “wellbeing” of children who have “already had their education disrupted by the pandemic.”
Ms. Foy also raised the issue of a lack of assessment mitigations for students undertaking GCSE and A-Level assessments this year, commenting: “This is an extremely important year for pupils in Year 11 and the sixth-form students in Year 13 – a crucial year for GCSEs and A-Levels.
“So far the Government have offered no dispensation for those pupils, who have had more than 11 weeks of their education disrupted.”
She continued: “Ofqual [the Government regulatory body for assessments and qualifications] has told me that it is ‘not in a position to agree adaptations’ even though items such as coursework and school books were not retrieved from the old building until 27th October. Full face-to-face learning did not commence until 30th October, with parts of the school remaining shut now.
“It is clearly nonsense that, on the one hand, pupils would be allowed mitigating circumstances if a fire alarm went off in the school during an exam, but, on the other, they are denied exemptions if their schooling has been disrupted for more than 11 weeks.”
Ms. Foy appealed to Mr. Hinds, saying: “We are urging the Minister to do all he can. I implore him to change Ofqual’s refusal to make any mitigations.
“He could perhaps amend the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, or give a one-off dispensation to the pupils in Years 11 and 13 – anything to help these pupils and their families.”
Ms. Foy concluded with a request that Mr. Hinds would “come to Durham, speak to the parents and pupils of St Leonard’s, and let us sort this mess out together.”
Responding to the issues raised, Mr. Hinds (appointed Minister of State for Schools amid the cabinet reshuffle on 13th November), agreed to arrange further discussions with Ms. Foy. Mr. Hinds also addressed her concerns over the pace of financial reimbursements to the Trust, mentioning the “timeliness of so doing.”
Regarding the lack of specialist facilities, Mr. Hinds commented: “Temporary classrooms are being installed on the school’s playing fields. RAAC has impacted many of the specialist facilities, as she rightly said, including science labs, IT rooms and DT areas.
“We continue to explore options for the delivery of those specialist places as soon as possible.”
On the subject of assessment mitigations, Mr. Hinds said that: “Qualification-awarding organisations have been working and continue to work with schools including St Leonard’s” noting that it was at the discretion of “awarding organisations” to “grant extensions to deadlines”, but that “flexibility” would be offered where possible and highlighted that two “awarding organisations” were scheduled to have discussions with St Leonard’s in the coming week.
Nick Hurn OBE, CEO of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust issued a statement, saying: “We cannot stress enough how incredibly difficult the start of this academic year has been”, continuing, “We are incredibly grateful for the support of Mary Foy MP and other local MPs have given the school and the Trust and we will continue to work closely with them.”
He added: “We have written to the exam boards alerting them to our situation and informing them that we will be submitting our case for our examination students in due course.”
Image: Russel Wills via Wikimedia Commons