Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was “utterly wrong” to blame him for the government’s failure to fix crumbling concrete in England’s schools, following an accusation that he approved cuts to rebuilding programs when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was “utterly wrong” to blame him for the government’s failure to fix crumbling concrete in England’s schools, following an accusation that he approved cuts to rebuilding programs when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Jonathan Slater, top civil servant at the Department for Education from May 2016 to August 2020, told BBC Radio on Monday that Sunak in 2021 had halved the number of schools set to be rebuilt.
Sunak’s Conservative government faces growing questions over how funding decisions may have led to the crisis after more than 100 schools were ordered last week to close buildings because of the risk posed by Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). The premier told broadcasters on Monday that some 95% of around 22,000 schools in England would not be affected — leaving open the possibility that as many as 1,100 schools could face closures. Other buildings including hospitals and courts could also be impacted.
The controversy at the start of the new academic year threatens to dominate the political agenda as members of Parliament also return following a summer recess. Sunak’s official spokesman, Max Blain, spent almost half an hour answering questions from journalists on the topic at his regular briefing on Monday.
It 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 on Monday made changes to his top team ahead of a general election expected next year, a move that could reflect the make-up of the next British government.
Slater said that in 2021, 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 reduced to 50.
The Treasury’s funding decision was made despite warnings of the risk posed to pupils and teachers by RAAC. The roof of a primary school in Kent, southeast England, collapsed in 2018 and an official advisory body — the Standing Committee on Structural Safety — issued a warning in 2019.
Defending his record, Sunak said one of the first things he did as chancellor was “to announce a new 10-year school re-building program for 500 schools.”
Read more: School Buildings in England Ordered to Shut Over Concrete Flaws
Sunak “bears huge culpability for his role in this debacle,” Labour’s education spokeswoman, 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.
An NAO report in June found that the education department has “received significantly less funding for school buildings than it estimated it needed.” In 2020, the department requested £3.1 billion for the “major rebuilding and refurbishment of around 200 schools each year” its report said.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan denied Sunak was responsible for the concrete crisis, telling the BBC on Monday that government departments always request more money than they receive. 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.
Pressure on Keegan
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 it was a failure by multiple departments and successive governments, putting the blame on education ministers, the Treasury and Downing Street for failing to get ahead of the problem.
Another 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 an 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.
Adding to the pressure is the revelation she was on holiday as the crisis unfolded. Keegan was in Spain Aug. 25-31 to celebrate her father’s birthday, after instructing ministerial colleagues and officials to investigate the RAAC issue, her office said. During that time, she worked via video conferencing and email each day, and continued to lead the government’s response to the crisis, her office said, adding that the travel chaos caused by air traffic control systems in Britain going down meant flights were not available for her to return earlier.
–With assistance from Andrew Atkinson and Joe Mayes.
(Updates with further context starting in fourth paragraph.)
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