The government is under fire over concrete-related school closures and its failure to maintain school buildings. Is this a crisis that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could have prevented?
More than a hundred schools in England are completely or partially closed because of concerns that the material used to build them is unsafe. There could be further school closures across the UK in the coming weeks.
Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – or Raac – was used as a “wonder material” in flat-roofed buildings, including schools, between the 1950s-1990s.
It’s cheaper than traditional concrete but it’s also less durable, with a lifespan of around 30 years. Successive governments have been aware of this lifespan, and known that public buildings were consequently at risk of collapse.
Since 2018 the Conservative government has monitored schools containing Raac. But after a beam in a school previously deemed safe collapsed earlier this summer, the Department for Education changed its advice to schools containing Raac. This prompted the recent – and last minute – school closures.
The crisis has quickly become a major political headache for the government and has prompted forthright comments from all sides.
Speaking on the Today programme, Jonathan Slater, a former senior civil servant, pointed the finger of blame at the prime minister. He claimed that when Rishi Sunak was chancellor, he failed to fund a Department for Education plan to rebuild hundreds of schools a year in England.
“We weren’t just saying there’s a significant risk of fatality, we were saying there’s a critical risk to life if this programme is not funded,” said Slater.
The prime minister said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to blame him for the crisis. The education secretary Gillian Keegan was also caught by ITV News expressing her frustration at criticism in a hot mic moment. She has since apologised.
But writing in the Times newspaper, Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office (NAO), accused the Conservative party of “years of underinvestment” in infrastructure – and said the government had adopted a “sticking plaster” approach to school safety.
In 2010 Michael Gove, then education secretary, cancelled a Labour programme to build schools for the future, while capital spending on education is currently half what it was in 2010.
The NAO says there is a “significant” gap between the funding needed and the funding available to make school buildings safe.
Raac was also used to build other public buildings including hospitals and courthouses. For the government, currently trailing Labour in the polls, it’s a nightmare crisis with no end in sight – and one exposing serious cracks in policy.