Education secretary Gillian Keegan is under fire from Labour after it emerged she chose to go on holiday four days after ministers advised she close schools affected by RAAC.
And claims by Keegan that children in a RAAC school prefer learning in their new temporary “portacabin” have also been criticised as “embarrassing”.
Keegan was challenged in Parliament today over her government’s handling of the RAAC crisis.
‘Children prefer portacabins to the classroom’
Asked about the use of temporary classrooms, Keegan said: “I’ve been to a number of these schools and seen children and met children in portacabins.
“In fact at the first school I went to, the children were all petitioning me to stay in the portacabin because they actually preferred it to the classroom.
“The portacabins are very, very high quality.” She advised Labour to visit “some of the high quality portacabins that we have”.
But Catherine McKinnell, shadow schools minister, said Keegan’s comments were “just embarrassing and says a lot about the state of our schools.
She posted on social media: “I was educated in portcabins under the last Tory government. We lost our sports field to them. Children facing disruption and lack of facilities and the Ed Sec thinks it’s a joke. It’s no joke.”
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said when he met with Keegan yesterday she made the same comments. He posted: “My thought was ‘good job you haven’t said this in public’.
“But here we are, the secretary of state saying ‘some children prefer portacabins’ And what dire of state of repair must the school be in if a portacabin is better?”
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at heads’ union ASCL, added: “Much of the school estate is outdated and should have been refurbished or rebuilt many years ago.”
Keegan went on holiday after RAAC escalation advice
An education committee this morning heard ministers had advised Keegan on August 21 to escalate the RAAC policy and close all affected schools. The decision to do this was communicated to schools 10 days later.
Speaking in Parliament, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said Keegan “didn’t merely sit on new advice … about the safety of school buildings. No, she did nothing for four days, and then she acted decisively – she went on holiday for the best part of a week.
“Ten days past from the day she received crucial advice to the day that headteachers were told to close their schools, causing chaos for parents.
“How on earth did she think she could get away with going on holiday rather than taking any sort of action at all?”
But Keegan said she instructed officials to get more technical information after getting the August 21 advice. But in the meantime, another collapsed RAAC case in a school on August 24 forced the decision to close schools, which was made a week later.
“I went abroad, because that was the first time I could go abroad for my father’s birthday, knowing that I would still be chairing the meetings, which I did on Saturday, Sunday, Monday.
“Then I made the decision, now that we had made a decision, to come back from holiday immediately and I came back one day delayed because of the air traffic.”
‘One of quickest decisions any MP has made’
She added she need to “operationalise” the issue and she did not want to “put schools in a situation where I put out a notice … and left them with the problem… [this was] probably one of the quickest decisions anyone in this house has made.”
It comes as government confirms 174 schools in England have confirmed RAAC.
Keegan also told MPs that 11 RAAC schools have temporary buildings currently, with a further 28 requesting potential orders.
She also said “there’s no intention” of propping up classrooms “with metal poles”.
“These will be largely be horizontal props involving tempered beams… either with steel structures or with wooden structures which would then have another roof underneath.”
Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, told MPs this morning that as of Friday, about 180 single classrooms, 68 double classrooms and some toilets could be needed.
The DfE is working with three contractors to “accelerate” the installation of temporary rooms.