Schools left plugging leaks as £450 million backlog in school maintenance causes problems across NI

There is a £450m backlog in maintenance at schools across Northern Ireland, and the Education Authority says it is concerned about the impact it is having on children and young people

Looking at the hall of St Colm's High school, you could be forgiven for thinking this is an outdoor sports facility.

If you look past the massive puddle of water, you will realise this is inside of a school.

Pupils don’t have full use of the hall: it’s been at reduced capacity for 2 months now while they wait for essential repairs.

"We've had the engineers out" says school principal Adrian Walsh "and they've turned the pipes off, but we've been told the leak is going to continue for the foreseeable future, until either the valves are replaced or the pipes are replaced, depending on what needs to be done

"It could be the summer before that is replaced.

"For health and safety reasons we get the sports hall cleaned up every day. But even though that's cleaned up with the vacuum machine this morning, it's back already.

"There is a substantial leak there. We have to cordon the whole hall off, so that we can't use that particular section."

Other parts of the school also have problems; costly IT equipment is only being saved from a leaky roof by a bucket.

"It seems like we're papering over the cracks" says Principal Walsh "with a flat roof you're always going to have issues.

"Anytime there's any heavy rain, we have a considerable number of leaks from around the school.

"Caretakers and technicians are going round the school with buckets just to stem the flow."

St Colm's isn't alone; many other schools also have maintenance issues.

To fix them all would cost nearly half a billion pounds. But as we know, there are major budgetary pressures at Stormont.

In a statement the Department of Education say "the historic under investment is now being acutely felt.

The minister has submitted a significant bid of £51 million for school building maintenance."

The question then arises of how successful would any bid for funding be given the financial pressures.

Anne Watt of the Pivotal think tank told UTV that "Each minister is going argue really hard for their department.

"They're going to want to get a good settlement. It'll be a very tough conversation.

"What we've seen in the past is generally that everybody gets something, but in recent years we've seen health more funding.

"The result of that is that other departments like education and justice have got relatively less in the past.

"There might be efforts to rebalance that this time around."

Those tough decisions will have to be made. For schools like St Colm's, they have to make do in the meantime and stem the flow as much as they can. In a statement a Department of Education spokesperson said “The consequences of an ageing estate of more than 1,000 schools and historic under investment is now being felt acutely, with a maintenance backlog in excess of £450m."

The opening allocation for maintenance in 2023-24 was £20.54M, which was completely insufficient and required an additional £13.13M to be allocated in-year. On this basis, the Minister has submitted a significant bid of £51M for school building maintenance in 2024-25.”

A spokesperson for the Education Authority said:

“It is essential there is adequate investment to improve the fabric of our school buildings so that our children and young people can be educated in an environment that is conducive to effective teaching and learning.

“Given the current financial challenges, EA is only able to invest in essential and/or emergency maintenance across our schools’ estate. Based on surveys, the latest estimated backlog of works is estimated to be in the region of £450m; and while budgets have not yet been set for 2024/25, we do not expect this gap to close.”

“We remain very concerned about the impact this will have on schools, our staff and ultimately on children and young people, and we will continue to work with the Department of Education to seek to secure additional and sustained funding from the Executive.

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