Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

Response to crumbling concrete is 'world leading', schools minister insists

The response to the crumbling concrete crisis has been ‘world leading’, the schools minister has claimed, despite more than 100 being told they can’t fully open just days before the start of term.

Nick Gibb’s comments came after his boss Gillian Keegan let out her frustration that no one was acknowledging what a ‘f****** good job’ she was doing.

He said the Department for Education (DfE) was acting to keep children safe from the risk posed by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which is prone to collapse.

Asked about Ms Keegan’s ‘hot mic’ rant, Mr Gibb told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘What she was trying to get across is the huge amount of work that the DfE has done.

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‘We are world-leading in terms of identifying where RAAC is in our school estate.

‘We’re talking about a small number of schools out of 22,500 schools, but we have conducted surveys since March last year, so we know where RAAC is, and we’re sending in surveyors to identify RAAC.

‘And then the decision was taken, an important decision was taken last Thursday to keep children safe with new evidence that emerged about non-critical RAAC that we now believe is unsafe, and we took the difficult decision because we want to keep children safe.’

He said he expected those schools affected to be made safe or alternative accommodation to be found quickly, with disruption to lessons limited to days rather than weeks.

Asked if the debacle would be dealt with by the end of this school term, Mr Gibb told LBC: ‘What we are doing is sending a case worker for every school where we know there is RAAC.

‘They are working right now with those schools.  We know that the 52 schools that we have already sent in, and work is happening during this year that children were only out of school for an average of six days. 

‘So alternative accommodation has been found, mitigation, propping, whatever it is, has all happened in those 52 schools.

‘I expect the same thing to happen in the remaining 104 schools where we are now being more cautious in RAAC that was identified as not critical. And I suspect that will be all sorted out far sooner than Christmas.’

He also played down suggestions the DfE announced closures without a plan to help schools deal with the issue and promised to publish the full list of those affected ‘before Friday’.

In criticism caught on camera after an interview on Monday, a frustrated Ms Keegan hit out at those who she argued had ‘sat on their arse and done nothing’.

She also questioned why no one was saying ‘you’ve done a f****** good job’, before being forced to go before broadcasters to apologise for the language she used. She appeared to laugh when shown the clip back.

Ms Keegan went on to admit to being on holiday in Spain in the run up to ordering more than 100 schools and colleges in England to make complete or partial closures.

She was facing her Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday morning as the Prime Minister assembled his top team for their first meeting since returning from the long Commons’ summer break.

Ministers have been accused of taking a ‘sticking plaster approach’ to essential maintenance by the head of the Whitehall spending watchdog.

Writing in the Times, National Audit Office chief Gareth Davies suggested that there had not been sufficient focus on ‘unflashy but essential tasks’ such as maintaining public buildings that have faced ‘underinvestment’.

Mr Gibb said he did not ‘accept’ the charge, telling Sky News: ‘We’re spending £1.8 billion a year … and we are taking more proactive action on that than any other government in the world.’

He also sought to defend Rishi Sunak’s decision-making while chancellor, after he was accused by a former top official at the DfE of having declined a request for funding to rebuild more schools at the time.

Mr Gibb admitted that the DfE asked for funding to overhaul 200 schools a year in 2021 only for Mr Sunak to grant funding for just 50 a year.

‘We put in a bid for 200, but what Rishi agreed to was to continue the rebuilding programme with 50 a year, consistent with what we’d been doing since we came into office,’ the minister told Sky.

‘Of course we put in a bid for 200, but of course the Treasury then has to compare that with all the other priorities from right across Whitehall, from the health service, defence, and so on.’

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On Monday, the Prime Minister admitted hundreds more schools could have been built with problematic RAAC.

He insisted that 95% of England’s schools were unaffected, leaving open the possibility that more than a thousand could still be impacted by the collapse-risk material.

Downing Street said the total number was expected to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Mr Sunak was also accused by a former top official at the Department for Education (DfE) of having declined a request for funding to rebuild more schools while he was chancellor.

The head teacher at one of the schools forced to delay the start of term over the crisis has said he was previously denied government funding to rebuild it.

Andy Perry said his application on behalf of Myton School, in Warwick, was rejected by the Department for Education (DfE) because ‘other schools had a higher need’.

He told the BBC Myton receives around £35,000 each year in capital funding towards building maintenance – less than a quarter of the amount allocated in 2010.

The head applied for extra cash from the government’s School Rebuilding Programme for the two main buildings, which were ‘old and in disrepair’ having been built in the 1950s and 60s.

But in a letter, seen by the broadcaster, the DfE turned it down.

A structural engineer has since confirmed the presence of RAAC panelling throughout the first floor of the lower school building. It houses maths, languages, art, and drama classrooms, as well as a medical room and the canteen.

Metro has contacted the DfE for comment.

Schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also being assessed for RAAC.

The Scottish Government has said it is present in 35 schools, but that none poses an ‘immediate risk’ to pupil safety.

The Welsh Government said two schools on Anglesey which had been due to open for the autumn term on Tuesday would be closed temporarily.

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