Tiverton by-election: Will a leaky school roof hand the Lib Dems Devon’s floating voters?

In the English department on the top floor of Tiverton High School, there are holes in the ceiling. Rain leaked in last year, damaging GCSE coursework. When a tile fell off in the girls’ toilets, asbestos was discovered. There are boarded-up windows, damp patches and mould, peeling paint and signs warning of a “fragile roof”.

Environment Agency officials say the school of 1,400 pupils “is at risk of dangerous flooding, in excess of 1.5m . . . a depth that poses a risk to life”. A county council report says it would cost £16 million to repair.

Sian Griffiths, Ademola Bello www.thetimes.co.uk (Extract)

……Since last spring, the government has chosen 100 schools to be rebuilt. Just over a quarter are in Tory marginals or target seats with a majority of 10 per cent or less, and nearly a fifth (18) are in Tory marginals or target seats with a majority of 5 per cent or less, according to analysis by The Sunday Times.

Adam Wishart, the convenor of Fund Our Tivvy High, said: “This is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. But people feel let down.

“They have been promised this school would be fixed for more than 15 years. It is rated a ‘good’ school but the buildings are 60 years old and not fit for purpose.”

Wishart, a documentary maker, has two children at primary school who he wants to send to Tiverton High. He added: “We want a school fit for our kids. I am worried about sending mine here because of the Environment Agency warnings.

“The government has agreed to fund 100 schools for rebuilds since February 2021. Only four are in the southwest.”

Christian Wakeford, the former Tory MP who defected to Labour, has said that he was warned when he was a Conservative MP that funding for a new school in his Bury South constituency would be scrapped if he voted against the government.

Wishart added: “Even if you take his [Wakeford’s] testimony with a pinch of salt, we have been concerned that Tiverton and Honiton is being left behind because we aren’t a red wall marginal, and we have a solid Conservative majority. So now we are asking . . . can the Conservative candidate [Helen Hurford] secure a commitment from government to promise the money to rebuild the school before Thursday’s election. Then we can decide how to vote.”

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Richard Foord, 44, a former army major and father of three who lives locally, has made school repairs one of his top priorities, along with reducing ambulance waiting times, forcing water companies to reduce sewage in rivers and cutting VAT by 2.5 per cent.

He says he has a “mountain to climb” to win the seat but many expect the Conservative majority to be slashed. “While it is regarded as a safe seat it does not get the funding it needs,” he said. “The levelling-up money goes to the Midlands and north where the Tories are chasing votes. The southwest is neglected — that is what folk here tell me.”

At hustings in the school with all the by-election candidates on Thursday last week, Hurford said she had told Boris Johnson when he visited Devon to help her to canvass that she backed the school rebuild “100 thousand trillion percent”. When she refused to reveal the prime minister’s response but said his pledges were “honest”, the audience jeered.

Photos dating back to the 1960s show how the problems with the school buildings have escalated. One shows Parish standing next to the head teacher. He is holding a bucket to catch water coming through the roof next to a sign that says ‘Caution: wet floor’.

Kyle Alves, a university lecturer whose daughter Enelle, 11, is in her first year at the school, said: “We can see areas where the roof has leaked, where there has been water damage, there is paint peeling and damp behind walls. This is all noted even in recent surveys.” He fears the “left-behind” and “dingy” buildings will dampen students’ academic aspirations.

Built in 1959, the school, part of a federation of three run by the local authority, was identified as in need of a new building in 2009. A year later, Michael Gove, then education secretary in the new coalition government, scrapped the existing building programme for schools which had been established by Labour in 2006.

School representatives have since met ministers in London several times to beg for help. Once they were told to “sell off school playing fields” to pay for the work.

“I thought, have they read the papers, do they understand it is on a flood plain — who would build houses here?” Sowden said.

Head teachers across the country have had to ask parents to dip into their pockets to repair schools. In one London school, parents recently chipped in to refurbish the staff room; in another, parents held an art auction with postcard-sized works by artists including Tracey Emin to pay for a photographic studio.

But that approach relies on parents with the wherewithal to help. At Tiverton High, Sammy Crook, the head teacher, says parents cannot afford the millions of pounds required. The average salary in Tiverton is about £23,000. In some rural schools, head teachers have volunteered their DIY skills.

Crook is “disappointed and frustrated”. Most head teachers of crumbling schools stay quiet for fear of deterring parents. While private schools embark on ambitious programmes to create state-of-the-art theatres, swimming pools and classrooms, she would be happy with a school that does not leak or flood.

“I accept I am not going to have an Olympic-size swimming pool in a state school. What I don’t accept is that our young people don’t deserve the inspiring facilities any young person should experience, irrespective of whether they go to a private or state school.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “School rebuilding is directed solely by data on the condition of the estate, both from schools themselves and one of the largest, most comprehensive datasets in Europe. The safety of pupils and staff is paramount, and buildings where there is a risk to health and safety will always be prioritised. We have allocated over £13 billion since 2015 to improve their condition, including £1.8 billion this financial year. Our school rebuilding programme will also transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising schools in poor condition or with potential safety issues.”