Ministers prioritised new free schools over pupil safety and prime minister Rishi Sunak slashed school rebuilding funding despite knowing about the dangers of “crumbly” RAAC concrete, the Department for Education’s former permanent secretary has said.
In an explosive intervention this morning, Jonathan Slater squarely placed the blame for the school building crisis at the feet of the current PM.
The Department for Education last week ordered 104 schools with RAAC to shut just days before the start of the new term.
It is understood officials learned over the summer of cases where buildings with RAAC– reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – collapsed, despite not showing any signs of deterioration.
‘I was amazed’ rebuilding fund was halved
Speaking this morning, Slater revealed the department’s assessment while he was permanent secretary was that 300 to 400 schools needed to be re-built each year.
The government pushed to double the number of rebuilds from 100 to 200 a year at the 2021 spending review.
But instead, a rebuilding programme of just 50 schools per year was announced. Sunak was chancellor at the time.
“I was optimistic that with the quality of the analysis – detailed surveys that had never been done before – I thought we would get [the funding bid] over the line.
“The spending review was completed a year after I left office, and I was absolutely amazed the decision made by government was to half the school rebuilding programme, from 100 a year to 50.”
He added: “We knew what was needed. A proper school rebuilding programme was going to be required otherwise these sorts of panics would take place. Now they have.”
Slater said the assessment of 400 new builds a year was because of “system-built” schools, which he described as concrete, post-war buildings that have a design life of 30 to 40 years.
“It’s frustrating of course when for you the most important thing is the priority to be given to safety. We were able to present [the treasury] with really good data.”
‘Critical risk to life if this programme is not funded’
“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”
In 2018, the roof of a Kent primary collapsed with little warning. “It wasn’t just a risk, it was actually starting to happen,” Slater added.
“I thought we would get there in the end. I thought because of the quality of the data, the age of austerity was over.
“Boris Johnson was prime minister and he wanted to put more money into schools I was told. I did think we would be able this time to increase funding.”
But he added the “top political priority when I was permanent secretary was in opening new free schools”.
“For me as an official, that seemed like it should have been second to safety, but politics is about choices and that’s the choice they made.”
Spending dropped from £765m to £416m
Analysis published by the Labour party this morning shows government spending on school rebuilding programmes was £765 million in 2019-20.
But after Sunak became chancellor, this dropped to £560 million in 2020-21 and £416 million in 2021-22, the analysis found.
Sunak told ITV News today that it was “completely and utterly wrong” to say he cut funding for rebuilding as chancellor.
He said “one of the first things I did as chancellor in my first spending review in 2020, was to announce a new 10 year school rebuilding program for 500 schools”.
That “equates to about 50 schools a year that will be refurbished or rebuilt”.
“And if you look at what we’ve been doing over the previous decade, that’s completely in line with what we’ve always done, about 50 or so schools a year refurbished or rebuilt.”
The government’s priority school building programme ran from 2014 to 2021, and involved 537 schools. That averages out as 77 schools a year.
‘Chickens coming home to roost’ for Tories
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “Rishi Sunak bears huge culpability for his role in this debacle: he doubled down on Michael Gove’s decision to axe Labour’s schools rebuilding programme and now the chickens have come home to roost – with yet more disruption to children’s education.
“The defining image of thirteen years of the Conservative-run education system will be children sat under steel girders to stop the roof falling in.”
In a video posted on social media, education secretary Gillian Keegan said “most parents shouldn’t be worried about this at all”.
Speaking to the BBC this morning, she promised to publish a list of affected schools this week.
The delay in publishing this was because not all schools have started the new term yet and “we wanted to make sure every school had the capability to speak to parents first”.
She revealed 1,500 schools are still yet to have an actual survey to check whether they contain RAAC.
Another 450 that have suspected RAAC are also yet to have a visit from a government engineer to assess the building. Keegan said the backlog will be cleared in the next two weeks. The DfE has increased the number of surveyors from three to eight.
‘We’ve got a grip of RAAC’
“We’ve got a grip of RAAC. We know exactly where it is and where we don’t we will find it very soon. We will deal with it in the short term, being very cautious to put children’s safety first.”
Questioned over cuts to rebuilding funding, she said: “There’s always a challenge in putting forward your case for funding and how much you get.
“Every department will always put forward a case to get more than they actually get, it’s the way government money and business expenditure works.
“You have to demonstrate good quality for money cases. There’s no point spending money delivering shoddy buildings, or ones that in the case of ‘wacky warehouses of Knowsley’ we had to go back and put classroom walls in.
“You can spend money, it’s not about that. It’s delivering value for money and making sure you have a very good programme that you can roll out quickly and is energy efficient.”