Government 'shrugging their shoulders' over crumbling schools, Labour claims, as Tories hit back at 'opportunism'

4 September 2023, 23:06 | Updated: 5 September 2023, 00:44

Labour has accused the government of 'shrugging its shoulders' over the Raac crisis
Labour has accused the government of 'shrugging its shoulders' over the Raac crisis. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Labour has accused ministers of "shrugging their shoulders" in response to the crumbling concrete crisis that has caused more than 100 schools to close buildings.

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The opposition said its MPs had made more than 180 warnings about the outdated reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in schools since last summer. There are fears that ceilings made of the material could collapse in some schools.

The crisis has completely engulfed British politics, with Rishi Sunak insisting on Monday he is not to blame, and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan issuing an expletive-laden complaint about civil servants not being thanked enough for their work on the problem.

Raac was used in the latter half of the 20th century but it was suspected of not being useful beyond a lifespan of about 30 years. Comparisons have been made with the inside of an Aero chocolate bar.

It became a serious issue after a roof at a primary school in Gravesend, Kent, collapsed on a weekend after signs of structural stress the day before. School building owners were then asked to check about Raac in their sites.

Bridget Phillipson criticised the Conservatives
Bridget Phillipson criticised the Conservatives. Picture: Alamy

The government says it has sent out questionnaires asking schools if they believed they had Raac in their buildings and carried out surveys to check.

A total of 104 schools were told to shut buildings last week amid fears it could collapse. Action has been taken on another 52, but there are fears Raac could have been used in more buildings.

Rishi Sunak said on Monday that 95% of England's schools were unaffected by the crisis. That means that more than 1,000 more schools could yet be identified as having Raac. Schools minister Nick Gibb said a full list of schools affected would be published this week.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour's shadow education secretary, said: "Time and again Labour warned about the risks posed by crumbling school buildings but Tory Ministers just shrugged their shoulders.

Many schools have had to close down buildings
Many schools have had to close down buildings. Picture: Alamy

"The first act of the Conservative government in 2010 was to axe Labour's schools rebuilding programme, then Rishi Sunak as Chancellor doubled down, further cutting the budgets by nearly half - and now the chickens have come home to roost.

"Parents deserve to know where these schools are, what ministers knew about this dangerous concrete and what they plan to do to minimise yet more disruption to children's education."

A Conservative spokesman dismissed the comments as "typical political opportunism by the Labour Party."

The spokesman added: "When they were in power they were warned about Raac. They did nothing.

"Their schools building programme was found by an independent review to be wasteful, inefficient, and untargeted."

The Raac crisis itself was sidetracked on Monday by Ms Keegan, who complained about not being thanked for doing a "good f*****g job".

Asked by LBC's Andrew Marr later in the day who Ms Keegan was referring to, schools minister Nick Gibb said she was frustrated about a lack of acknowledgement of hard-working civil servants.

Mr Gibb said: "What she was saying was that the civil servants in the department have worked really hard in identifying Raac, sending engineers out to identify this new evidence, making a really big decision over the summer, and rolling out the consequence of that decision."

He added that she was also voicing her frustration about a "small number" of people who are responsible for managing school buildings.

He told LBC that a small number of those schools had not returned their questionnaires on Raac, which he says explains Ms Keegan's frustration.

"We’ve had 95 per cent of the responses back from the responsible bodies…but we’ve not had five per cent. And it’s that she is frustrated about," he said.

The schools minister reiterated that Ms Keegan "does regret" her use of language.

Iain Dale disputes ITV's decision to publish Gillian Keegan interview

Speaking on Monday, in footage released by ITV News filmed as the camera repositioned for extra shots, Ms Keegan - still wearing her microphone - claimed the Government had gone "over and above" to ease concerns over the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac).

"Does anyone ever say, you know what, you've done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?" she said.

"No signs of that, no?"

Schools minister says Ms Keegan's explicit rant was directed at 'small minority' of school mangers

Read More: Education Sec blames interviewer as she apologises for expletive-laden rant over concrete crisis

The Education Secretary was forced to apologise after she was caught saying some people had been "sat on their arses" as the government worked to solve a crisis about the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in some schools.

Speaking about the incident later on Sky News, she said: "I wasn't talking about me, actually. I was talking about the department.

"The job I was talking about started in March 2022 so way before I was in."

She praised the department's approach in trying to find where Raac was.

A source inside Number 10 has said Rishi Sunak has "full confidence" in Ms Keegan after her comments, though said the remarks were "wrong".

The Health and Safety Executive said last month: "Raac is now life-expired. It is liable to collapse with little or no notice."

Read More: School concrete collapse fears explained: When will I know if my child's class is affected by and what is RAAC?

Read More: 'Schools have been allowed to wither': James O'Brien criticises Sunak's refusal to fund concrete safety repairs

It comes after the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said over the weekend that he would "spend what it takes to sort out this problem as quickly as possible" and that the government is doing "everything we can" to resolve it.

He said the government is carrying out an "exhaustive" surveying programme in schools but added: "Obviously, we might find new information in the weeks or months ahead."

Gillian Keegan (centre) and Rishi Sunak (right)
Gillian Keegan (centre) and Rishi Sunak (right). Picture: Getty

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak has said it was "completely and utterly wrong" to suggest that he is to blame for failing to fully fund a programme to rebuild England's schools when he was Chancellor.

"New information came to light relatively recently and it's important that once it had, that the Government acted on it as swiftly as possible," he said.

"Of course I know the timing is frustrating, but I want to give people a sense of the scale of what we are grappling with here: there are around 22,000 schools in England and the important thing to know is that we expect that 95% of those schools won't be impacted by this."

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