Baroness Barran, the education minister leading the government’s response to the RAAC crisis in schools, has appeared before MPs today.
The academies minister, who is responsible for capital funding, gave evidence to the Parliamentary education committee alongside Department for Education permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Keegan took 10 days to rubber-stamp RAAC closure call
Barran gave MPs a timeline of events leading to the decision to ask schools with RAAC to close affected areas off.
Advice about the failure of a “non-critical” plank of RAAC at a school outside England came at the end of July, and then another collapse in a commercial setting followed.
Junior ministers advised education secretary Gillian Keegan on August 21 to ask schools to close.
A few days later, there was an incident happened at a school in England where workmen were drilling new light fittings and “large pieces” fell from the ceiling. The decision to close schools was then communicated to leaders on August 31.
Asked if the DfE could have acted quicker, Barran said: “I genuinely think the answer to that is we couldn’t have acted quicker, because clearly the advice we received went through a range of options from immediate closure to staged closure in a kind of warning period.
“As ministers our advice to the secretary of state was that we should take the most cautious route.”
It comes as Keegan faced criticism in the House of Commons today for going on holiday after receiving advice to close schools.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said she was “not just running from responsibility, but flying from it. Our children deserve better.”
2. Hundreds of temporary classrooms needed…
MPs pressed Barran and Acland-Hood for the number of temporary classrooms installed at affected schools.
Barran said they were needed in a “small minority” of cases “because the vast majority are either repurposing space within the school or re-using other space in other local schools”.
Pressed further, Acland-Hood revealed that so far the DfE was aware of at least 29 schools “that we think will require temporary accommodation”.
“Of those, 11 are in place, and that’s a mixture of those that were provided centrally and those that were provided by the responsible body.”
By Friday evening, project directors and caseworkers had “enquiries requesting potential orders…relating to 180 single classrooms and 68 double classrooms and a mix of what I think are brilliantly referred-to as ‘hygiene facilities’ which I think means loos”.
But both witnesses were rapped by MPs for failing to give those figures in an answer to a written question.
3. …but some schools face months-long wait
The Bromfords School in Wickford, Essex is among those awaiting temporary classrooms, with some pupils having to learn from home. Local MP Mark Francois asked when they would receive them.
“The date we have for reopening we think would be no later than November 20,” admitted Barran, which Francois pointed out was “two months away”.
“Putting temporary classrooms in sounds like it’s a quick fix, but it is very often not a quick fix,” Barran said.
4. Timber ‘ceilings’ used, but no netting
Some schools have gone through a process known as “propping”, which involves metal or timber posts holding up RAAC ceilings.
However, Barran said the “more typical” mitigation in schools was construction of a timber ceiling below the RAAC. This allowed schools to then replace ceiling tiles and “you wouldn’t know it was there”.
Barran said the “semi-permanent” measure would last around 10 years if needed, but Acland-Hood pointed out the Treasury pledge to “rebuild or repair spaces that have RAAC such as to remove” the material.
The solution “takes the clock off but it doesn’t mean we won’t want to do a permanent fix”.
Conservative MP Nick Fletcher asked if the DfE had considered using netting, but Barran pointed out RAAC planks could be as long as eight metres.
“I don’t think as a child or member of staff I’d be particularly comfortable under a net,” she added.
5. ‘Worrying’ non-responses chased by phone …
The DfE is now chasing the responsible bodies who have yet to respond to questionaries about whether they have RAAC. Those yet to respond represent 1.4 per cent of school buildings that were constructed between the 1930s to 1990s, the era RAAC was used.
Barran said the non-response was “despite me writing to them repeatedly”, adding: “Honestly we are now at the point where we are just going to be ringing them up individually. Luckily it’s a very small number, but those calls are starting imminently. I mean, it’s worrying.”
She added that the change to the government guidance at the end of August had also prompted a “big influx” of updated responses from schools that had already filled out the questionnaire.
6. …But the only way is Essex
While some responsible bodies have been criticised for inaction, others have been praised for their response.
Barran said the “outstanding job” done by Essex County Council, which had “already mitigated in the vast majority of their schools” before the government took action, may be a reason the area is so “visible” in the crisis.
The latest data shows a third of affected schools are in the county.
7. DfE ‘speaking to’ Ofqual about exam pupils
Pupils due to sit their exams next year were in year 7 when the Covid pandemic hit, meaning large parts of their education have been disrupted either by lockdown, last year’s teacher strikes and for some, the RAAC crisis.
In response to an MP’s question about a pupil in their area, Barran said the DfE was “working as quickly as we can to make sure that she gets back in a safe, warm, clean classroom with her classmates and her teacher and she can carry on successful I’m sure with her education”.
“We’re also working to make sure that we’ve spoken to…I’m right in saying we’ve spoken to or are about to speak to Ofqual regarding for some students if there’s very significant disruption how might that be taken into account.”
8. Barran ‘not denying’ impact of capital funding cuts
The RAAC crisis has prompted criticism of capital spending, which declined by 46 per cent in real terms between 2009-20 and 2022-23. Barran was asked today if maintaining 2010-level funding would have “averted or reduced” the RAAC crisis.
She said there was a “risk of 20:20 hindsight, in the sense that the first incident we became aware of was in 2018”. The minister also pointed out some schools had been rebuilt, but still had RAAC.
But Barran also pointed to a “spike in capital expenditure” between 2009 and 2011, and said averages over a 10-year period did not show “such a radical decrease”.
However, she said she was “not denying there isn’t [sic] a decline, I’m not denying that hasn’t [sic] had some impact. I’m just saying I think it gives a fairer impression of the scale of that.”