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Head teacher Austin McNamara
"Safety and educational issues"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Heads warn Blair over 'dreadful' schools
school building
Crumbling window frames are common
Three dozen secondary school head teachers have written an open letter to the prime minister saying "the dreadful state" of many of their school buildings is putting at risk children's education - and health and safety.



What do we tell parents and pupils when they complain about inadequate and unsafe facilities?

Durham head teachers
They say they want to alert him to "an impending crisis", with thousands of children working in "cramped and outmoded" classrooms.

The Durham Association of Secondary Headteachers, representing 36 heads in the county, says it has written to Tony Blair both as prime minister and as the MP for a local constituency - Sedgefield.

It says the government's extra investment in education is "extremely welcome" - but falls far short of making up for "the legacy of under-resourcing over the past two decades".

The letter says that "unless funding is significantly increased and sustained over a period of time, many school buildings in County Durham - and in other areas of the country - will continue to deteriorate."

'Urgent need'

An independent survey commissioned by Durham County Council had indicated that repairs costing 82m were needed - with 32.4m of that regarded as urgent.

The five secondary schools in Mr Blair's constituency alone needed 2.5m spending on them urgently.

One had been given an allocation for 2000/2001 of 24,314 - against a projected need for urgent repairs of more than 1.75m.

"The situation is even worse than it appears from the above figures, as the survey took no account of the suitability of existing facilities for delivering a modern curriculum," the letter says.

The standard of accommodation "seriously restricts teachers' genuine attempts to improve the quality of teaching and learning" - identified as a key issue in a number of inspection reports from the standards watchdog, Ofsted.

"It is therefore imperative that urgent action is taken to improve the conditions in which our pupils, who deserve much better, are expected to succeed," the heads say.

Anger

"What do we tell parents and pupils when they complain about inadequate and unsafe facilities?"

The chair of the heads' association, Austin McNamara of Framwellgate School, Durham, said his colleagues felt frustrated and in some cases angry about their inability to tackle the problem.

In his own school, a leaking roof on the sports hall meant it had to be closed during heavy rain.

"Many of us have science laboratories that are no longer appropriate for a modern science curriculum," he said.

"Many of us have old-fashioned woodwork and metalwork rooms which are totally unsuitable for a modern design and technology course."

Windfall wish

The heads suggest that a repair scheme could be funded from the 22bn windfall the government has had from the recent auction of mobile phone licences.

Mr McNamara said they hoped that by highlighting the problem they would generate the sort of public head of steam that had been generated over the state of the National Health Service.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "In the last round of New Deal for Schools we announced 6.1m for Durham - 97% of what they asked for.

"Our funding will make a considerable impact, but there is still a considerable way to go to address 18 years of neglect of school buildings.

"We appreciate the head teachers only want the best for their pupils - so do we. They only know the scale of the problem, the backlog and size of repairs, because we asked all local education authorities to assess needs and prioritise."

Union leader's own experience

The heads' letter has been supported by John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, who from 1982 to 1998 was head of the largest school in County Durham, Durham Johnston Comprehensive.

"For 16 years I experienced at first hand the appallingly low level of capital and maintenance expenditure on school buildings," he said.

"Although much of the blame should be laid at the door of the previous government, the prime minister should be embarrassed by the school buildings in his own county.

"The situation revealed in the County Durham headteachers' letter is replicated across the country and requires a massive investment on a five-year strategic plan to bring school buildings up to an adequate level."

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See also:

17 May 00 | Education
Good and bad school design
11 Apr 00 | Education
Cash to bulldoze old classrooms
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