Fury after minister says he'd let kids sit under propped-up classroom ceilings despite fears of concrete collapse

1 September 2023, 08:30 | Updated: 7 September 2023, 11:40

Nick Gibb said he would be happy to see his young relatives go to school if the ceilings are propped up properly
Nick Gibb said he would be happy to see his young relatives go to school if the ceilings are propped up properly. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Schools minister Nick Gibb has claimed he would let his nieces and nephews sit under classroom ceilings containing weak concrete if they are propped up - as Labour reacted with fury.

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A total of 104 schools have been told to shut buildings containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) amid fears it could collapse. Action has been taken on another 52.

It was a common building material in the latter half of the 20th century but it is feared to be prone to coming down, having been compared to the inside of an Aero bar.

Some schools will need to relocate to new accommodation while safety measures are taken, with some having their ceilings propped up.

Asked on LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast if he would be happy to see his young nieces and nephews to sit in a classroom under a ceiling propped up by a steel girder, Gibb said: "Yes, because we're taking a very precautionary approach.

Read more: School classrooms in England forced to close if they were made with certain type of concrete prone to collapsing

"Some say we're being overcautious in dealing with this. But the advice is you can prop up these beams. Where they are in a more dangerous condition, of course, we take that room out of use altogether.

"And that's the work that's happening with a case worker, with support from the Department, those 156 schools, and we continue to work to identify RAAC throughout the school system.

Schools Minister would be happy with relatives in classrooms with ceilings held up by 'props'

"There's no country in the world where you can be as assured as in this country that you have a government that is on top of this issue and is doing everything to identify where RAAC is and take action when we think it is unsafe for pupils."

But Labour hit back after his comments, with Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, saying: "Children sat underneath steel girders to protect them from the ceiling falling in: the defining image of thirteen years of a Conservative-run education system.

"You can't give children a first class education in second rate buildings. The next Labour government will ensure schools are fit for purpose and children are safe."

Workmen at Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield, which has been affected with sub standard reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete
Workmen at Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield, which has been affected with sub standard reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. Picture: Alamy

Gibb has also revealed the government realised the risk when a beam collapsed.

"What we discovered over the summer was a number of instances, in schools and in non-schools, in England and outside England, where RAAC that had been considered to be a low risk actually turned out to be unsafe," he told the BBC.

"So over the summer - given this evidence - we had to take a decision. And some of that evidence, by the way, was as late as last week. We had to then decide what to do given the previous advice.

“A beam that had no sign... that it was a critical risk and was thought to be safe collapsed."

Caroline Evans, head teacher of Parks Primary School in Leicester stands next to a taped off section inside the school which has been affected
Caroline Evans, head teacher of Parks Primary School in Leicester stands next to a taped off section inside the school which has been affected. Picture: Alamy

The Department for Education has not released a list of schools affected, and it has now confirmed it has no plans to do so due to "operational" reasons.

Gibb said a list will be published but the government wants teachers to contact parents directly.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said: "If you don't hear, don't worry."

Pupils having been told already that they will have to learn remotely at temporary classrooms or at different schools.

The DfE will fund essential works and temporary buildings but it will not cover the costs for emergency accommodation.

A questionnaire was sent out to schools in 2022 asking them to reply with whether they believed any of their buildings contained RAAC.

Among the schools to shut was Kingsdown in Westcliff on Sea in Essex
Among the schools to shut was Kingsdown in Westcliff on Sea in Essex. Picture: Alamy

Those that said they did were investigated and action is now being taken where RAAC was found.

But MailOnline reports the list of responses to the questionnaire is "building all the time" after Thursday's closures announcement.

There are more than 20,000 schools in England.

The disruption to learning comes just after pupils in England received their GCSE and A-level results under a marking scheme closer to the pre-Covid one, despite having had their own education disrupted by the pandemic.

Dame Rachel De Souza, the Children's Commissioner, said: "After years of disruption for children and young people, what they need most is stability and getting back to normal.

"We must learn lessons from the pandemic, and we need to see proper communication to children and families affected by this guidance.

"There also needs to be clear direction as to where children should go at the start of the new term and reassure them that places are safe and suitable.

"An assessment must be made of other settings where children are, and guidance provided as soon as possible."

The Local Government Association, which represents councils - which oversee some schools - said it had warned about RAAC since 2018.

"Leaving this announcement until near the end of the summer holidays, rather than at the beginning, has left schools and councils with very little time to make urgent rearrangements and minimise disruption to classroom learning," said Cllr Kevin Bentley, the senior vice-chairman of the body.

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