Rishi Sunak Told To Give Schools New Money To Deal With Concrete Crisis
Many schools have been forced to close over fears of building collapse (Alamy)
The concrete crisis that is threatening the closure of hundreds of schools nationwide is engulfing the government on Westminster's first day back from the summer recess, with Rishi Sunak under growing pressure to give extra money to headteachers dealing with the fallout.
One former Conservative education minister told PoliticsHome that schools had suffered from "years and years" of Treasury neglect and underspending, and that they believed the government would inevitably have to go beyond the education department's existing budget to deal with the chaos being caused by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
Last week the Department for Education confirmed that more than 150 schools across England were deemed to be at risk of collapse as a result of potentially faulty RAAC, forcing many to close or partially close ahead of the start of term. The government has faced criticism of failing to sufficiently fund building safety programmes that could have averted the crisis.
The Chair of the Commission on Young Lives has warned that the closure of schools will have a "really disturbing" impact on pupils.
On Monday, the Prime Minister's spokesperson sought to calm fears of huge disruption to childrens' learning.
They stressed that the number of schools impacted by unsafe concrete is understood be in the "hundreds, not thousands", and that the "vast, vast majority" of educational settings and pupils will return from their summer holidays as normal this week.
But Sunak and his ministers are facing a number of questions about the disruption, including why Sunak did not agree to fund more rebuilding of schools when he was Chancellor, and whether his successor Jeremy Hunt will give impacted schools extra money to cover the costs of temporary relocation and transporting pupils to makeshift sites.
Jonathan Slater, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE), this morning claimed that as part of the 2021 Spending Review, Sunak decided to halve the number of schools which would be rebuilt every year to 50. Slater in an interview with the BBC said that civil servants had recommended that the government pays for the rebuilding of 300 to 400 schools a year, and that DfE requested Treasury funding to pay for 200.
The PM's spokesperson challenged Slater's characterisation of the events two years ago. They said that Sunak's decision to fund the rebuilding of 50 schools per year was "in line" with decisions made by successive governments.
"Under the programme the Chancellor signed off in 2020, it was 50 schools per year. As the PM made clear this morning, that was in line with what has been done under successive governments in terms of the rate of refurbishment or rebuilding of schools," they told reporters on Monday.
The spokesperson suggested that education secretary Gillian Keegan will have to draw from her department's existing budget to help schools impacted by the concrete, and that Sunak currently does not plan to tell the Treasury to release extra money. "There is money already set aside for rebuilding work in schools, which I am sure will be used for this purpose."
They said the government would provide "appropriate funding" to help impacted schools cover the costs of relocating to temporary sites and transporting pupils there, and that the Prime Minister "doesn't want this to impact school budgets crucially”.
An ex-education minister said the RAAC crisis was a culmination of many years of the Treasury not giving the education department the money it needs to maintain schools buildings.
"A lack of HMT (His Majesty's Treasury) cash for school buildings has been a problem for years and years," the Conservative told PoliticsHome.
"The Treasury will have to find new money. They would be better off just conceding that now rather than being forced to do so in a day or two."
Keegan, who Sunak appointed education secretary in October, inadvertently made her own frustration over the growing crisis clear on Monday when she was recorded by ITV saying others in the government had "sat on their arse and done nothing".
After finishing an interview with ITV, Keegan, whose microphone was still turned on, can be clearly heard complaining: "Does anyone ever say: 'you know, you've done a fucking good job and everyone else is sat on their arse and done nothing'? No signs of that, no?". Keegan has since apologised for the tone of the comments.
Stephen Morgan MP, Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister, said that the "appalling comments" confirmed the government had neglected the issue.
"This is a staggering admission that Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives have done nothing to address a problem that they have known about for years. The Education Secretary has displayed staggering arrogance for saying she deserves a pat on the back for the chaos that is gripping our schools on their watch," he said.
Anne Longfield, who chairs the Commission on Young Lives having previously served as the Children's Commissioner for England, told PoliticsHome the situation was a "mess".
Longfield criticised what she described as a lack of government willingness over the last decade to tackle the problem, and pointed to the fact that there had been as many as secretaries of state for education in that time.
"You just can't get any kind of cohesive or comprehensive strategy, ultimately, to improve outcomes for children with that kind of churn," she said.
"There's been some complacency and a lot of fingers have been crossed, limbs have been crossed, that it would come good."
She added that many pupils were only just returning to normal after the disruption caused by Covid school closures, and are now being "plunged back into confusion and uncertainty".
"Remember, the exams had gone back to normal this year. In the marking of grades, this was going to be the first year of normality after three years of disruption," Longfield said.
"It brings back painful memories for both kids and their parents about that whole time of disruption and lack of clarity about what was going to come next, and we know that one of the things kids always say that really had a big impact on their mental health was just not knowing where this was all going to end or what came next. That uncertainty is really disturbing."
Additional reporting by Caitlin Doherty.
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