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Headteachers angrily accuse Sunak of ‘dumping on them’ in crumbling concrete fiasco

They claim Michael Gove ‘gleefully’ scrapped plans to rebuild schools – and say Sunak’s plan to fix problem would take 440 years

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 06 September 2023 12:37 BST
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Primary school headteacher reacts to Keegan's sweary outburst: 'I am horrified'

Headteachers have accused Rishi Sunak’s government of “dumping on them” by blaming them for the crumbling concrete crisis – attacking the Tories for “gleefully” pulling the last Labour government’s rebuilding scheme.

At least 13 of the schools found to have crumbling concrete had funding to rebuild scrapped by the Conservative government back in 2010, it has emerged.

Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it would take 440 years to fix under Mr Sunak’s plan to rebuild 50 schools a year – noting that it would have been complete by now if started in the time of the Spanish Armada.

The union leader told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was a “febrile mood” among schools and heads over the Raac crisis. “There is a feeling that once again they have been dumped on by the government.”

Mr Barton said that he had visited a school in Suffolk set for vital repair work on the day then-education secretary Michael Gove “gleefully” announced Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was getting pulled.

He said the scrapping of the “important” works programme meant “we’ve got head teachers scrambling around trying to identify bits of concrete that might look like Aero bars when they should be focusing on children’s learning”.

Mr Barton mocked Mr Sunak’s “proud boast” that he would rebuild 50 schools a year – saying the programme would have to started in the 16th century to have been completed.

“At the rate of rebuilding England’s 22,000 schools at 50 a year, those built in 1583, just before the Spanish Armada, would just about be coming up for a refit,” said the union leader.

He added: “Is the government’s view that rebuilding schools over the next 440 years going to be – to quote Gillian Keegan – an effing good job?”

Mr Barton said some headteachers who phoned the Department for Education (DfE)’s hotline for the crumbling concrete crisis has been put through to an “apprenticeship hotline” instead. He said one head had returned the wanted questionnaire three times – despite Ms Keegan’s demand for schools to “get off their backsides”.

Michael Gove and David Cameron (Getty Images)

Concerns over Raac have caused more than 100 schools in England to partially or fully shut. Mr Sunak has become embroiled in the row after one of his ministers admitted that the PM approved for 50 schools to be rebuilt a year when he was chancellor – rejecting an application for 200 a year.

A BBC investigation has found that 13 schools with Raac saw planned rebuilding work scrapped by David Cameron’s government in 2010. The National Education Union (NEA) described it as “calculated neglect”.

The Labour government’s £55bn scheme – the BSF programme – aimed to rebuilding or refurbish every secondary school in England. The coalition government scrapped plans to rebuild 700 schools over cost concerns, before launching its own school building scheme in 2014.

Then education secretary Michael Gove said Labour’s BSF had seen “massive overspends, tragic delays [and] botched construction projects”.

The BBC identified 13 schools from the 2010 list due for rebuilding – including in Essex, London, County Durham, the West Midlands and Bradford – which have been closed after last week’s move to shut buildings with dangerous levels of Raac.

Rishi Sunak is likely to face questions about the schools concrete crisis at PMQs (PA Wire)

Daniel Kebede, general secretary for the NEA, said the Raac problem could have been addressed by now if BSF “had been allowed to continue”, adding: “It has in my opinion been calculated neglect.”

Sir Keir Starmer said that he would be grilling Mr Sunak on the concrete crisis at PMQs, adding that PM had questions to answer about his time at the Treasury.

“I think the least that we’re entitled to is to know what risks were pointed out to him in 2021 when the prime minister to go forward, and an answer from him as to why he didn’t allow that funding to go forward,” the Labour leader told BBC Breakfast.

Mocking the PM for cutting the tax rate on champagne in 2021, Sir Keir said: “At the very time Rishi Sunak took the decision that he wouldn’t fund the necessary work for schools, he took the decision – at the same time – to cut the tax rate on champagne.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer promised to grill Sunak on schools at PMQs (PA Archive)

Mr Starmer said that Labour would ensure schools are both “open and safe” – but did not provide the details of what any rebuilding or refurbishing programme would look like under his party.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps defended the Tory-led coalition government’s decision to scrap the BSF programme – pointing out other funding puts have replaced the scheme. “Many of those schools have had other remedial work or building work done in the meantime,” he told Times Radio.

Labour has said it will look to use an arcane parliamentary mechanism to discover what Mr Sunak knew about the crisis during his tenure in the Treasury – eyeing submissions of evidence sent by the DfE to No 10 and the Treasury relating to advice on the construction trouble.

More than 100 schools across the UK have had to partially or fully shut (PA Wire)

As part of the move, it will also push to see all related correspondence ahead of the 2020 and 2021 spending reviews and the 2022 spring and autumn statements to show what advice Mr Sunak was given as chancellor about the need to replace Raac.

It emerged on Tuesday that only four schools have been refurbished under the government’s main rebuilding programme since 2021, despite Mr Sunak’s promise it would cover 50 a year.

But No 10 insisted that the four schools were the only ones completed under that “specific programme” and other work had been done under other schemes.

As NHS England urged health bosses to carry out an urgent review of Raac in hospitals, The Independent understands the government is sounding out care home providers about potential concerns across their estates.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan under huge pressure (AP)

Elsewhere, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said under fire education secretary Gillian Keegan has “serious questions to answer” after it emerged a company the senior Tory’s husband has links to was handed a £1m IT contract from a fund earmarked for rebuilding schools.

As reported by the Daily Mirror, which broke the news about the contract, Michael Keegan states on his LinkedIn social media page that he is a non-executive director at technology firm Centerprise.

The company was one of six suppliers awarded contracts earlier this year to replace server infrastructure, with the money coming from the DfE’s school rebuilding programme fund. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr and Mrs Keegan.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Ministers had no involvement in the procurement process for these contracts, which were awarded in line with existing government commercial procedures.”

On rebuilding work, a DfE spokesperson said: “We committed to rebuilding 500 schools over the next decade as part of the Schools Rebuilding Programme and we are on track to deliver that.

They added: “That is on top of 520 schools already delivered since 2015 under the Priority Schools Building Programme. The School Rebuilding Programme is in its initial stages of delivery and there will be an increase in the number of projects beginning construction in the next year.”

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