Crumbling concrete crisis grows as minister defends propping up schools with girders

Damage: a collapsed ceiling at a school in Gravesend ( )
Damage: a collapsed ceiling at a school in Gravesend ( )

A minister came under fire today amid a growing school buildings scandal as he defended using classrooms with ceilings propped up with girders.

In a combative round of media interviews, schools minister Nick Gibb denied that he should resign after the Government’s last-minute decision to close, either partially or completely, more than 100 schools and colleges due to fears of crumbling concrete.

It has thrown the start of the academic year into chaos with many pupils potentially facing a return to pandemic-style remote learning.

More sites may be affected due to the widespread use of RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) from the Fifties, the minister said. But he added that parents could feel safe sending their children to school next week if they have yet to hear of a problem.

“We took the decision as soon as the evidence emerged. We were proactively seeking that evidence, unlike any other governments around the world,” he said on GB News. Mr Gibb said the Education Department would shoulder all the costs of temporary classroom arrangements, such as portable buildings, where schools face partial closure.

He told the BBC an RAAC beam that collapsed during the summer prompted the Government to issue the closure warning. So far 156 schools and colleges have been identified as containing potentially crumbling RAAC with 104 told to close buildings for urgent repairs, but surveys continue and more issues could emerge.

“Safety of pupils and staff is our prime concern,” Mr Gibb said, adding that a list of the educational sites would be published “in due course”. Corpus Christi Catholic Primary School in Brixton and St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Brent are among those affected. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said yesterday that affected schools would contact parents directly, adding: “If you don’t hear, don’t worry”.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson MP told the Evening Standard: “Parents will be horrified that ministers are now having to justify learning in propped-up classrooms. The truth is that we should never have got to this point,” she added. “The Government has known about this crumbling concrete for years, but time and again has denied our children the money needed to stop schools from collapsing completely.”

With schools also hit earlier this year by strikes as teachers pressed for a better pay deal, unions slammed the Government for what they called more evidence of under-investment.

“They’ve spent the last few months trying to hide the scale of the crisis,” the head of the National Education Union, Daniel Kebede, told Times Radio, accusing the Conservatives of depriving schools of nearly £35 billion in capital spending over the past 13 years.

“And it’s not just the issues of RAAC. Many schools still contain asbestos. And when you add asbestos to RAAC and crumbling buildings, we have a real mix of risks,” he said.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “This is an absolutely staggering display of Tory incompetence as they start a fresh term by failing our children again.”