Shambles? What shambles? Government on backfoot over school concrete chaos

Shambles? What shambles? Government on backfoot over school concrete chaos

Rishi Sunak has hit back at claims he endangered children’s lives by slashing the budget for school repairs while he was Chancellor.

As the uproar grew about crumbling concrete at the start of the academic year, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan admitted that “hundreds more” sites may face problems as officials surveyed the extent of the crisis.

She said a full list would be published “this week” of 156 schools already identified — including 104 needing critical repairs — as containing RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) once parents had been informed of planned remedial work.

The Prime Minister said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to suggest that he was to blame for failing to fully fund a programme to rebuild England’s schools when he was chancellor.

Ms Keegan was also under pressure after it was reported that her department was spending £34 million on revamping its offices amid the scandal. The work involves stripping out the Nineties’ interior over four floors of the Department for Education’s Westminster HQ.

“I wasn’t part of that decision, to be honest,” she told Sky News, although the report said she had signed off on a predecessor’s contract for the works in April. “I know that when I was last in the department, I was on a different floor and I know they are refurbishing some of them,” she added, promising to check the costs of such a makeover.

Appearing later on Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid asked Ms Keegan: “This is a mess, isn’t it?”

The Education Secretary replied: “I do understand that for parents and the headteachers who are affected that was last minute, but you can only act on the evidence when it emerges.” At least eight schools in London have had to remain closed on Monday or divert children to temporary facilities.

Ms Keegan said that her ministry would foot the bill for structural repairs, portable cabins and steel girders in classrooms, after the Treasury insisted that there was no extra cash on offer.

But with Parliament resuming on Monday after its summer recess, the Liberal Democrats demanded that the Prime Minister appear in the Commons to explain his decisions on the schools budget after he became chancellor in February 2020.

Former Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater said that officials had warned Mr Sunak of a “critical risk to life” from crumbling school buildings but their requests for additional funding were ignored — leading up to Ms Keegan’s drastic intervention last week. Department officials had told Mr Sunak’s Treasury that there was a pressing need to rebuild 300 to 400 schools a year in England.

But funding was only given for 100, which was then halved to 50, according to Mr Slater, who was the department’s top civil servant from 2016 to 2020.

Conservative ministers believed a greater funding priority was to build new free schools, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The Education Department saw the benefits of the refurbishment programme but “the challenge was to face the chancellor”, he said, adding: “It was frustrating when your priority was safety.”

Labour seized on the revelation as it revived a social media campaign controversially targeting Mr Sunak personally in the build-up to a general election next year. “Do you think your child’s school should be safe? Rishi Sunak doesn’t,” the attack advert said.

Labour said its analysis revealed that spending on school rebuilding in 2019-20 was £765 million, but after Mr Sunak became chancellor this dropped to £560 million in 2020-21 and then to £416 million in 2021-22.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “The defining image of 13 years of the Conservative-run education system will be children sat under steel girders to stop the roof falling in. Rishi Sunak bears huge culpability for his role in this debacle: he doubled down on Michael Gove’s decision to axe Labour’s schools rebuilding programme and now the chickens have come home to roost — with yet more disruption to children’s education,” she said.

Ms Keegan, however, accused Labour of ignoring the problem of RAAC when it was in power. She told the Today programme: “We’ve got a grip of RAAC.”