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23Aug91 UK: MASSIVE REPAIR PROGRAMME NEEDED FOR BRITAIN'S CRUMBLING SCHOOLS. (1 OF 2)

By Mark Smulian.As children throughout the country enjoy the freedom of the long summer holiday, worrying news on the state of their school buildings is being delivered to the Government.Last week local councils claimed that school buildings are crumbling in Britain and that a massive £4,300 million is required over the next three years to bring them up to scratch.Their claim was backed by powerful evidence in a report from the National Audit Office - Parliament's independent watchdog on public spending - which found a massive and worsening backlog of school repairs.It's unlikely that the news will be of much concern to little Janet and John as they lick their ice creams and play during the summer months, but the Government is certainly worried.So much so that new school premises regulations, due to come into force next month, have been quietly locked away.The regulations lay down minimum standards for school buildings, and during the past 10 years all schools were supposed to have been brought up to these levels. Instead, these have been postponed by five years and few believe the problem will be solved even by then.Ian Langry, education officer at the Association of County Councils, thinks the regulations were postponed because 'schools are so below standard that there would not be enough builders to put them right even if the money was available.'The Government has set up a new working party on school buildings, but amazingly this excludes the local authorities which own most of the schools. When challenged the Government said this 'is not that kind of working party'.The situation is worrying, and some local council people fear that the Government is starving school building budgets to encourage parents to vote in favour of their school 'opting out'.Opting out means that schools leave local council ownership and are instead run by their governors with funding direct from Whitehall. It is a process which the Conservatives are particularly keen to promote.The ACC complains that opted out schools enjoy buildings budgets three times as high as those owned by councils. Because of this the opted out schools could well become a growth area for maintenance and refurbishment spending. However, the budgets will be in the hands of head teachers and parent governors who may have little experience of dealing with the building trade.Whatever the reason for the poor maintenance of schools, the situation could become extremely dangerous. For one reason or another schools have fare particularly badly in the storms that have rocked Britain over recent years, and schoolchildren have died.Lack of maintenance has not always been to blame for the failures, but it certainly is not helping.The gap between what the county and metropolitan councils - which run education in England and Wales - say should be spent on schools and what the Government allocates to them is always wide. In 1990/91 the councils wanted £1,327 million for school buildings and got £485 million.This shortfall has caused a vicious circle of inadequate maintenance, emergency repairs and further deterioration.For some councils, mainly in urban areas, the main problem is maintenance of traditionally-built schools dating from 80 or more years ago.But for most, the headaches are caused by schools built in the '60s and '70s which are already reaching the end of their useful life.