September is usually the time that children, parents and teachers are gearing up for the start of the new school year. New uniforms have been bought and classrooms prepared. It’s a time of excitement and some trepidation, especially for those starting new schools.
But just a few days before the beginning of term, these arrangements were plunged into chaos. The Department for Education (DfE) has ordered the immediate, enforced closure of more than a hundred schools made with aerated concrete (RAAC), until safety checks and repairs can be carried out.
A DfE communication stated: “I appreciate this may come as a shock and is likely to cause disruption but the safety of pupils, students and staff is our priority.” ‘Shock’ is something of an under-statement to parents who now face their children being taught remotely again and to headteachers who must find alternative accommodation.
The National Education Union (NEU) says the timing of the closures is “absolutely disgraceful” and a “sign of gross incompetence”, while Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove, described the situation as “shocking evidence of a department in disarray”. So far three schools in Sussex have been identified as unsafe.
The risks of RAAC were well-known
RAAC was widely used in numerous public buildings between the 1960s-90s, especially in flat roofs, but its use was stopped in the 1990s as risks became known. Structural engineers (SCOSS) estimated the safe life of RAAC planks as 30 years and building owners were urged to undertake regular inspections.
Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme was cancelled by the then Education secretary Michael Gove in 2010 and investment in school buildings has never reached the same level since.
In 2018, two school roof failures gave rise to urgent warnings about RAAC from SCOSS and the local government association (LGA). The DfE estimated that repairs and rebuilding schools would cost £4bn a year. However, the government is only spending about £1.7bn a year, which is significantly less. And of 500 rebuilt schools planned for England over 10 years from 2020, just four were completed in 2021.
When the considerable risks to RAAC buildings have been known for so long, you have to ask why this was not a higher priority. It would have been an ideal time, while schools were closed during Covid lockdowns, to undertake a major, nationwide rebuilding and repair project.
Shadow Education secretary Bridget Phillipson said it was a “staggering display of Tory incompetence”, while leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, said it was a result of “a decade of swingeing cuts to spending on school buildings.”
Gillian Keegan blames everyone but herself
In announcing the immediate school closures, Education secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now.” Education minister Nick Gibb said the government response was “world-leading”, though he failed to say how much it would cost.
But platitudinous government reassurances will have done little to alleviate the immense pressures on school leaders – and parents – in facing the immediate and ill-timed crisis.
Worse still, MP for Chichester Keegan quickly resorted to blaming everyone but herself for the situation. Firstly, she was caught on camera saying: “everyone else has sat on their arse” while she tried to fix the problem. She then went on the record to tell school leaders to “get off their backsides” to answer a RAAC survey. Headteachers called her language “unacceptable” and the NEU described it as “outrageous”.
Labour’s Phillipson also revealed that a company linked to Keegan’s husband received £1m from a schools’ rebuilding fund, which “appears to be a gross conflict of interest.” With no fewer than 10 secretaries of state for education in the last 13 years, Sky News’s Adam Boulton asks: “Would another one now make much difference to the state of schools?”
The RAAC problem will only get worse
Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 September were predictably acrimonious, with Labour leader Keir Starmer likening the government to “cowboy builders”, while PM Rishi Sunak insisted the government acted “decisively” and called Starmer “Captain Hindsight.”
Starmer voiced what many are probably thinking: “The truth is this crisis is the inevitable result of 13 years of cutting corners, botched jobs, sticking-plaster politics.” Former MP Rory Stewart commented: “You couldn’t run a fish and chip shop the way the British government” is operating.
The government has now published a list of 147 schools known to be affected by RAAC, mainly in Essex and Kent; over 100 are in Tory constituencies. This list will almost certainly grow over the coming days and weeks.
It’s not only schools that are affected either: hospitals and care homes were also built using RAAC and NHS England has warned hospitals to be ready to evacuate if the buildings start to collapse.
Just one symptom of government collapse
If you look more widely though, the RAAC crisis is only one of many affecting the UK, most of which have arisen because of government incompetence. Inflation, high energy prices, increased mortgage rates, the NHS on its knees, sewage in the sea and rivers: the British economy and wider infrastructure are all at risk and the public are the ones who suffer.
Many of these problems arise because of short-termism and lack of planning. This applied to Covid, where the government was woefully unprepared, and applies to the RAAC issue.
Starmer put his finger on it when he said:
“Many people across the country are getting pretty weary of a government that has now been in power for 13 years, saying in answer to any question about their own failure, it’s not our fault, we couldn’t have done anything. Are they seriously saying to the country, that in 13 years, they couldn’t have done anything about their failures?”
“The cowboys are running the country” indeed. The country deserves better.