School crisis peak with just days left as Hunt says hell spend what it takes

Bridget Phillipson grilled on rebuilding crumbling schools

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has insisted the Government “will spend what it takes” to make classrooms safe from crumbly concrete.

More than 100 schools must shut fully or partially because of potentially collapsible reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) just as children were set to return from summer holidays.

Former Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Government must demonstrate it understands Britons’ “concern and frustration” by reviewing and investing in dangerous structures.

Mr Hunt failed to provide a figure for the cost of fixing schools with RAAC but said “we must spend this money”.

Referring to a survey commissioned in England after an incident when RAAC in a building failed, he said: “We had an exhaustive process of going through every one of the 22,000 schools since 2018.”

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Mr Hunt added that “new information came to light” in the summer about heightened risks, and “the education secretary acted immediately”.

That new information is understood to be the collapse of a beam made from aerated concrete, which had been thought to be safe.

Mr Hunt said he did not want to speculate on reports that 7,000 schools could ultimately be found to be at risk, but acknowledged that more “awkward” and “difficult” information could come to light. He added: “What people need to know is that however difficult it is…we will do absolutely what it takes.”

The Chancellor was adamant that the majority of schools in England where RAAC has been identified were able to operate at least partially and said the government would continue to act “very, very fast” to mitigate any new risks that were found. There are concerns that bubbly RAAC concrete may conceal a secondary danger of hazardous asbestos in roofs.

Prisons, courts, hospitals, offices and libraries are among the settings also at risk of caving in suddenly because of the lightweight building material.

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Ms Patel said: “The safety of all public buildings is paramount and these revelations in particular for schools at the start of a new academic year will cause concern and anxiety for pupils, parents and teachers.

“It is time for the entire government to work together to have a full assessment of the scale and damage of these vital public buildings and start planning for the long term renewal and investment of these neglected buildings.

“It is obvious that buildings degrade over time and there has been an absence of long term planning and maintenance as the running of schools and hospitals have moved to Trust’s and Academies.

“The Government must now take the lead and demonstrate they understand the public’s concern and frustration with this deeply concerning situation and provide essential support to the schools that are affected and start the process of renewing and investing capital into public buildings.”

Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokeswoman Christine Jardine MP warned an urgent review into all our public buildings is vital.

She added: “People deserve to know if the buildings they are working in or using are safe. The government knew about this for years and has completely failed to prepare properly. We need accurate information on the state of our public buildings and that starts with an immediate review.”

Treasury Minister Gareth Davies confirmed yesterday (SUN) that the list of schools at risk from RAAC is a “moving object” but confirmed the government will be publishing it.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan will make a statement in the Commons on the issue when Parliament returns from today (MON). The Education Select Committee will also probe the state of education settings tomorrow (TUES).

Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza welcomed the funding pledge but said “we shouldn’t even have been in this situation”.

She said: “Is it really the least to ask to say that we want safe, fit-for-purpose buildings? There’s not enough money in there and it’s not moving quick enough.”

The Labour-run Welsh Government failed to commission a survey into RAAC in school buildings until the end of August despite looking into all NHS organisations from February.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has said the lightweight concrete is present in 35 schools in Scotland, with local authorities checking which other buildings it was used on, including hospitals and social housing.

Brendan Clarke-Smith warned the Labour Party would be “scrambling” when asked about the state of their council housing.

He said: “I imagine a lot of Labour councils will be scrambling around when they are asked about the state of their own buildings or their council housing stock. Council housing is probably a bigger issue, as schools and hospitals were already part of wide scale programmes.”

Education minister Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow, said some schools in his constituency have been impacted.

He added: “From the 1950s, a number of schools and public buildings were built using RAAC. This is a lightweight concrete and much different from the traditional concrete that is used today.

“Since 1994, successive Governments have been aware of public buildings which contain RAAC. This Government has been working closely with schools since 2018 when it first published a warning note with the Local Government Association.”

RAAC is a cheaper alternative to standard concrete, quicker to produce and easier to install. It is aerated, or “bubbly”, like an Aero chocolate bar but it is less durable and has a lifespan of around 30 years.

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson has left worried parents in doubt over whether her party would rebuild crumbling schools if they win power in next year’s election

Appearing on Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning political show, Ms Phillipson dodged a number of repeated questions on replacing crumbling schools.

The BBC host asked: “Would you commit today then if Labour wins the election that you would pay for a full school rebuilding programme?”

A flustered Ms Phillipson replied: “I can’t just wave a magic wand and put right 13 years of Conservative government.”

But Ms Kuennsberg jumped in and repeated her question twice. Ms Phillipson continued to avoid the question.

Ms Kuenssberg added: “You are criticising them for cancelling it and not doing it, would you commit to doing it?”

A Conservative spokesman said: “This is the usual brand of attempted politicking we’ve come to expect from Sir Keir’s Labour. The facts are clear:

“Labour were warned about this when they were last in office and did nothing; they ignored the issue in opposition; and now it’s in the news they’ve decided they’re interested.

“In the meantime, in Labour-run Wales they are recklessly sending students back to school without checking they are safe, leaving parents in the dark.

“This government has already supported 50 schools to put RAAC mitigations in place and we are working to fix these issues as soon as possible, supporting parents and getting children back to school.”

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