Sunak Criticized Over UK School Budget Cuts Amid Concrete Crisis

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing accusations that he personally approved cuts to school building budgets when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite warnings of the risk posed to pupils and teachers by crumbling concrete.

(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing accusations that he personally approved cuts to school building budgets when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite warnings of the risk posed to pupils and teachers by crumbling concrete. 

Sunak in 2021 halved the number of schools set to be rebuilt, Jonathan Slater, who was the top civil servant at the Department for Education from May 2016 to August 2020, told BBC Radio on Monday. The Department for Education had asked the Treasury to at least double the number of schools in a rebuilding program to 200 from 100, but instead it was cut in half, he said.

Sunak’s office declined to immediately comment.

The revelation fueled growing questions over how the Conservative government’s funding decisions may have ultimately led to closures of buildings at more than 100 schools last week, due to concerns about Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), with potentially hundreds more schools are affected.

The controversy just days before the start of the new academic year threatens to dominate the political agenda as Members of Parliament also return following a summer recess. It also undermines government efforts to seize the initiative as Sunak battles to overturn the opposition Labour Party’s commanding lead over the Tories in opinion polls. Keir Starmer is set to reshuffle his top team on Monday ahead of a general election expected next year, a move that could reflect the make-up of the next British government.

Read more: School Buildings in England Ordered to Shut Over Concrete Flaws

Sunak “bears huge culpability for his role in this debacle,” Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said in an emailed statement. “The defining image of thirteen years of the Conservative-run education system will be children sat under steel girders to stop the roof falling in.”

Spending on school rebuilding in 2019-20 was £765 million ($966 million) but dropped to £560 million in 2020-21 and £416 million in 2021-22, according to the National Audit Office. Sunak was chancellor between February 2020 and July 2022.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan denied that Sunak was responsible for the concrete crisis, telling the BBC on Monday that a government department would “always ask for more than it is going to get, that’s the nature of public spending.” Since Slater had left the department, the government had been “making sure that we have a really thorough understanding of where there is RAAC,” she said.

A list of schools that are currently being forced to close buildings will be published later this week, and there “could be hundreds” more cases in England, she said.

But Tory lawmakers and officials said Keegan herself was facing internal pressure over her handling of the row.

One official said there was bewilderment in government as to how the education department ended up announcing school closures just days before the start of term. They spoke of internal panic caused by a lack of sufficient contingency planning put in place, evidenced by it posting a RAAC questionnaire for schools on social media on Sunday night.

Keegan’s initial absence from television screens — followed by a belated appearance on Monday morning in which she downplayed the problems — and the lack of information offered by the government on which schools are affected and when they’ll be fixed, also provoked criticism within Whitehall.

One official called it a cross-government and multi-government failure, putting the blame on successive education ministers, the Treasury and Downing Street for failing to get ahead of the problem.

Sunak and Hunt had hoped to capitalize on a falling inflation rate and an unexpected boost for the government — news on Friday that the economy recovered from the coronavirus pandemic far more quickly than statisticians had previously estimated, and faster than Germany, France and Italy. 

Instead, ministers find themselves facing fresh questions over the Conservatives’ handling of public services during their 13 years in power. Labour blames the problem on mismanagement and the years of austerity that saw spending on school buildings in England fall by 50% in real terms between 2010 and 2022.

–With assistance from Joe Mayes and Andrew Atkinson.

(Updates with context and quotes throughout.)

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