Rishi Sunak Accused of Cutting U.K. School Rebuilding in Concrete Crisis

By John Mercury September 6, 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a mounting crisis over Britain’s crumbling schools after a former government official said on Monday that Mr. Sunak had refused to rebuild more schools while he was head of the Treasury, despite warnings that lightweight concrete used in hundreds of buildings was a risk to life.

The former official, Jonathan Slater, who held one of the most senior roles in the Department of Education, said that in 2021, when Mr. Sunak was chancellor of the Exchequer, he cut in half an internal recommendation to rebuild 100 schools every year. That number had already been scaled back from the department’s original recommendation in 2018 that the government rebuild 300 to 400 schools a year.

“We weren’t just saying there was a significant risk of fatality,” Mr. Slater said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program. “We were saying there was a critical risk to life if this program is not funded.”

For the Conservatives, who are burdened by a stagnant economy and lengthy waiting lists at hospitals, a crisis in schools poses an acute political risk. They already lag the opposition Labour Party by nearly 20 percentage points in polls, and are resorting to divisive issues like immigration and climate policy, to draw sharp contrasts with their opponents.

Mr. Sunak heatedly rejected Mr. Slater’s charges, saying it was “completely and utterly wrong” to hold him responsible for the funding shortfall. He said that as chancellor, he had announced a 10-year program to rebuild 500 schools. And he said the problems with the concrete, which was used from the 1950s to the 1990s and has been found to have deteriorated, affected just 5 percent of England’s 22,000 schools.

Last week, the government ordered more than 100 schools known to contain the material not to reopen after the summer vacation or to move their students online or to temporary buildings. And the prospect that hundreds more might be affected has disrupted the lives of thousands of families, raising anxieties that have cast a pall over the start of the school year.

Builders used the material, known as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete or RAAC (pronounced rack), in roofs and walls because it is lightweight and cheaper to work with than traditional concrete. But engineers say it degrades more quickly than standard reinforced concrete, with a life span of only about 30 years. It is also vulnerable to structural failure.

In May 2019, the industry’s Standing Committee on Structural Safety warned that planks made from the lightweight concrete that predated 1980 should be replaced. “Although called ‘concrete,’ it is very different from traditional concrete and, because of the way in which it was made, much weaker,” the report said.

The Labour Party has seized on these warnings to argue that successive Conservative-led governments failed to prioritize child safety. Warnings about the dangers posed by the material began to emerge in the late 1990s, and became more acute after a school ceiling collapsed in 2018. Even now, however, the education department said it was waiting on questionnaires to be returned from 10 percent of the country’s schools to determine whether they were at risk.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said the decisions Mr. Sunak made as chancellor had “put children directly at risk from this dangerous form of concrete, which should have been replaced.”

In a social media post issued on Sunday, Labour said, “Do you think your child’s school should be safe? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

The government’s case has not been helped by a report in The Sun, a London tabloid, that the offices of the secretary of education, Gillian Keegan, and her department, were remodeled at a cost of tens of millions of pounds during this period. The contract for the renovation was awarded under Ms. Keegan’s predecessor, The Sun reported.

In an appearance on Sky News on Monday, Ms. Keegan was asked whether she had spent the money on refurbishments. “I don’t know, actually,” she said. “I didn’t. I haven’t done it. Which offices?”

Ms. Keegan also raised eyebrows by releasing a three-minute video over the weekend in which she discussed the government’s response to the safety risk while backed by a soothing dance-mix soundtrack more appropriate to a home improvement video.

“We’re working to make sure there is minimal disruption to education,” Ms. Keegan said in the video. “My key message to parents, students and teachers is that the vast majority of you will not be affected by this.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.


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