Fears more schools could be affected by crumbling concrete as new term begins

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said an ‘exhaustive process’ had been carried out to identify any unsafe school buildings (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said an ‘exhaustive process’ had been carried out to identify any unsafe school buildings (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)

Jeremy Hunt has said the Government will “spend what it takes” to make schools safe after classrooms were forced to close just before the new term amid concerns about crumbling concrete.

It came as schools minister Nick Gibb admitted more could be forced to shut just as millions of children head back for the start of the school year.

The Chancellor moved to reassure parents that an “exhaustive process” has been carried out to identify any unsafe buildings, amid accusations ministers failed to act quickly enough to mitigate risks raised in 2018.

But Hunt said that along with the potential danger of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), the problem of asbestos in schools is also being considered.

He said Education Secretary Gillian Keegan had “acted immediately” after new information came to light over the summer about the potential risk Raac, a lightweight material used up to the mid-1990s.

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg show, Hunt would not speculate on the potential cost of fixing the problem, but said: “We will spend what it takes to make sure children can go to school safely, yes.”

Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza welcomed the funding pledge but said “we shouldn’t even have been in this situation”.

She told the same programme: “There should have been planning in place and a really good school building programme that has addressed this over the years.

“Is it really the least to ask to say that we want safe, fit-for-purpose buildings? There’s not enough money in there and it’s not moving quick enough.”

Labour said the spending promise was a “bare bones” response to a crisis that could become “the defining image of 13 years of Tory government”.

More than 100 schools and colleges have been told by the Department for Education (DfE) to fully or partially shut buildings following the recent collapse of a beam previously considered safe.

On Sunday, Hunt confirmed further structural problems could emerge in the coming “weeks or months”.

Questions remain over the extent to which the problem has been complicated by the co-existence of asbestos in schools and other public buildings.

The Chancellor said the Government would act “whether it is Raac or the wider asbestos issue”.

He told Sunday With Trevor Phillips on Sky News: “We have 22,000 schools in the country and there has been since that incident a huge programme going through this Raac/asbestos issue because we want to be absolutely sure that every child is safe.”

Meanwhile, Keegan has promised the crisis will not lead to a “return to the dark days of lockdown”, despite guidance advising schools to use pandemic-style remote learning as a last resort if they are unable to hold face-to-face lessons.

Writing in The Sun On Sunday, she said there was “no choice” other than closures after a “handful of cases” where Raac had failed.

Remote learning should last “days, not weeks” and children will not be left unable to access classrooms for months, the Government has said, but ministers have refused to go into any further detail about when the disruption might ease.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “I can think of no more a defining image of 13 years of Tory Government (than) children being sat in classrooms under metal props to prevent ceilings from falling on their heads.”