Rishi Sunak’s government ordered some English schools to shut buildings made with a form of concrete that is prone to collapse, amid rising fears for the safety of pupils and staff.
(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak’s government ordered some English schools to shut buildings made with a form of concrete that is prone to collapse, amid rising fears for the safety of pupils and staff.
More than 100 schools and colleges were told this week to vacate buildings that do not have safety measures in place, the Department for Education said on Thursday in an emailed statement just days before the start of a new school year.
The shutdown underlines the scale of the challenge facing Sunak over public services, as he attempts to turn around a narrative of decline under his Conservative Party which has held power for 13 years. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has blamed deep-rooted problems in education, the National Health Service and criminal justice system on the Tories’ economic mismanagement, and hopes to secure victory in a general election expected next year.
The risk of school buildings collapsing and causing death or injury has been “critical and very likely” since summer 2021, a report from the National Audit Office found in June. Education unions criticized the government’s announcement, saying it should have acted sooner and ensured schools were kept in a good state of repair.
Read more: Risking Collapse: Watchdog Warns About England School Buildings
The education department said that just over 50 schools had already put safety measures in place, and it had this week contacted 104 further sites where the concrete was present to ask them to close buildings. In a “minority” of these schools, pupils would need to be relocated to other teaching spaces, according to the statement.
The building material — known as Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) — was used between the 1950s and mid-1990s. The NAO’s report said the DfE had identified in May that the concrete could be present in 572 schools across England.
“We must take a cautious approach because that is the right thing to do for both pupils and staff,” Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said in the statement.
But her Labour counterpart Bridget Phillipson accused her of “incompetence,” saying in an emailed statement: “Dozens of England’s schools are at risk of collapse with just days before children crowd their corridors. Ministers have been content to let this chaos continue for far too long.”
Mike Short, head of education at Unison trade union, said: “This situation is nothing short of a scandal. The DfE and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings.”
The Association of School and College Leaders said it had taken the government “far too long to act on a risk of this seriousness.”
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