SCHOOLS should be a sanctuary for their students, but for eight weeks pupils at St Leonard’s in Durham have had their education derailed. On the brink of them starting a new term, at the eleventh hour, the Government closed the school’s doors. RAAC, the structurally unstable concrete, had been found on site.  

Overnight, classes were left without classrooms. Through no fault of their own, an entire school community was plunged into chaos and uncertainty.  

As the RAAC crisis unfolded, I feared for just how many of Durham’s ageing schools could be affected.

In 2010, the Tories scrapped Labour’s Building Schools for the Future Programme. Slashing school capital budgets by almost 50 per cent. This year, the National Audit Office concluded that years of Tory underinvestment has left 700,000 pupils learning in dilapidated buildings requiring major repairs. A generation have been robbed of a first-class education in modern, safe schools.  

For those at St Leonard’s, pupils have missed out on half a term of vital face to face teaching because of government neglect.  

From the moment of the school’s closure, I have been working tirelessly with families and staff at St Leonard’s. We have left no stone unturned to ensure warm words from ministers in Westminster materialise in Durham as fully fledged and funded plans.

Throughout this crisis, weeks passed with little direction from the Department for Education (DfE). School staff, who should be focused on teaching, were expected to become project managers and logistics specialists.  

At a public meeting I held, 200 concerned families told me of their anger and frustration that while their children’s education had been put on hold, all they saw from the DfE was inaction.

That’s why I have been working so closely with the school, using my platform in Parliament to continually push ministers to act faster in resolving this crisis. I was pleased that, upon my invitation, the Minister for the School System and Student Finance visited St Leonard’s to see for herself the challenge the school faced, and see the upset and uncertainty felt by parents who gathered outside.

Through the hard work of the whole community, a road map to full time face-to-face education is underway and the DfE have prioritised the accelerated rebuild of the whole school.  

But challenges remain.  

Questions linger over the Government’s commitment to fund and support the school for all costs accrued during this crisis. Specialist facilities are still needed, and parents report that support for pupils with special educational needs has been negatively impacted. Concerningly, despite protestations from myself and the school, ministers and Ofqual are refusing to provide any mitigations for exam years who have missed out on half a term of education.  

Today, pupils would be given more mitigation for the fire alarm disturbing their exam than for missing a half term of teaching because of collapsing school roofs. It’s telling that the Government cannot see the disruption its own actions have caused. I’ll continue to remind them.

The priority a government places on education demonstrates the scale of ambition it holds for future generations. I’m proud Labour see education as a vital tool to break down the barriers to opportunity. For too long Tory neglect of education has left only school buildings crumbling.  %image('st leonard's', type="article-full")