Schools crisis – sheer incompetence

The timing could not have been worse. This is the most stressful part of the school year for teachers and Heads, getting the buildings ready for the new intake, checking all the tech, induction for new staff and planning a term’s worth of lessons. For pupils there is some anticipation and excitement, tinged perhaps with a bit of anxiety, as they prepare to move into a into a new school or a new class next week.

So it beggars belief that the Government should announce this week that a large number of schools in England have defective buildings which must not be used. Oh, and there is no funding to cover the hire and construction of temporary classrooms.

Of course, it would be understandable if this problem had only just come to light, but the Department for Education has known about the potentially defective concrete (RAAC) since 1994, and they knew that the concrete used only has a lifespan of 30 years. It’s a type of lightweight aerated concrete that was presumably cheap to use at the time. In 2018 they sent some vaguely worded warnings to schools but did not provide any advice or means to rectify the fault. So it is not new information that has emerged this week.

And yet some 100 schools were only told yesterday that they have to take immediate mitigating action because of the RAAC in their buildings. In some cases ceilings can be propped up as a temporary measure – although getting that done will be disruptive and will take some time – but others will have to close and replace whole rooms immediately.

Even worse, the list of schools affected will not be published, so parents have to wait to hear from their children’s schools directly about the impact, if any. Dealing with upset and angry parents just gives Heads a further headache. Some children will actually have to decamp to neighbouring schools, which will only add to the disruption.

Munira Wilson, our Education spokesperson, has been quoted widely. In a press release she (punnily) said:

This shocking admission is a concrete result of years of Conservative neglect of our school buildings.

Parents, teachers and pupils will be horrified that children have been taught in unsafe buildings and cannot return to school next week. Instead pupils face more misery learning in temporary classrooms or being bussed miles to local schools.

Pupil safety is paramount but for this to come out just days before term starts is totally unacceptable.

Liberal Democrats would invest in our schools urgently to remove RAAC where it is a risk to life and clear the backlog of school repairs.

I am at a loss to understand why the announcement was only made this week. It is clearly politically damaging to the Government, so I can only assume that they decided to sit on the information but then had to react swiftly when they finally realised that people’s lives were in danger. In other words, sheer incompetence.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Steve Trevethan 1st Sep '23 - 12:56pm

    It has been reported (Funding the Future comments) that an RAAC ceiling collapse occurred during the holidays when, so fortunately, the school was empty.

    Might our party foreground the following?
    * the crisis need to have all public use buildings checked for safety regularly
    * the crisis need to have taxation properly staffed and reformed so that it is equitable, clear and the money raised clearly well spent (Currently non waged/salaried work does not pay N I and where are the accounts for P P E expenditure?)
    * make a foregrounded set of information and policy statements on the vital need for a robust, assertive mixed economy (When schools are death traps, how will the next generations be well enough educated to be economically productive etc?)
    * publicise that infrastructure expenditure is not limited to/by tax revenues
    * develop a policy where every complaint about a government has at least one positive alternative/recommendation

    * the crisis need for a reform

  • Whilst government incompetence is a given now, I find it hard to accept that they have suddenly become interested in the wellbeing of anyone but themselves. The evidence for to the contrary is overwhelming and it no longer seems possible to be too cynical about this government’s real intentions. We should be alert to them using this as a smokescreen for something worse, and in their own interests. It seems a bit extreme to be business as usual, eg doling out very generous contracts for new schools to developers who coincidentally donate to the party. Are the unsafe schools predominantly in areas with Labour or LibDem control ? Requiring unplanned reorganisation and new buildings without additional funding would be very disruptive. It would make local government look bad and generate lots of negative publicity. Perhaps they are considering an earlier election?

  • Jason Connor 1st Sep '23 - 1:48pm

    And which party was in power in 1994? Oh I forgot Labour so did they do anything about using this defective concrete back then?

  • Andrew Toye 1st Sep '23 - 2:29pm

    No, The Tories were in power from 1979-1997. But yes, the governments of all shades should have acted sooner

  • A timeline may be helpful here. The Department for Education asked BRE to assess RAAC roofs in Essex schools in 1994 because of concerns then about the integrity of the panels. Although they reported back that they did not see evidence that they were an immediate hazard, the DofE did advise schools to have RAAC roofs inspected.
    In February 1999 the Standing Committee on Structural Safety advised that schools and other buildings with pre 1980 RAAC roofs should have them inspected. In 2018 a primary school roof in Kent did collapse, which was surely a sufficient warning to the most complacent of governments. In September 2022 the Government Property Agency issued notice that RAAC should be considered life-expired and liable to collapse.

  • Jenny Barnes 2nd Sep '23 - 10:34am

    Never put down to incompetence what can be better explained by corruption.

  • David Garlick 3rd Sep '23 - 10:09am

    All makes me extremely sad that Political need to get elected becomes, ‘don’t tax as much as is needed’ which in turn becomes, ‘don’t do what you can leave for others to pay for in the future’.
    A real incentive for thse who push the line that’ Political self interest is rife in our politics’.

    Politicans are not all the same; We are not the same; an importaant point to get across in our campaigning.

  • On the question of incompetence, and in the interests of accuracy, I happen to recall that the biggest school building cuts I can recall were by the Coalition Government in 2011. Gove (assisted by Dominic Cummings) was the Minister: the Junior Minister was Lib Dem Sarah Teather. As a Lib Dem Councillor and Cabinet Member at the time I remember it well.

    The Guardian, 9 February, 2011 :

    “A high court judge has ordered the education secretary, Michael Gove, to reconsider his decision to cancel scores of multimillion-pound school rebuilding projects.

    Mr Justice Holman said Gove’s actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative last year had been “so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power”.

    Under the £55bn scheme introduced by Labour, every secondary school in England was to be either rebuilt or refurbished. More than 700 schools’ building projects were cancelled when the scheme was scrapped in July.

  • Peter Martin 5th Sep '23 - 8:23am

    @ David Raw,

    A good point.

    The period of 2010 onwards was when the the school building maintenance and rebuilding program should have been expanded. There were spare resources in the economy at the time which aren’t available to the same extent now.

    The economy needed a stimulus to help it recover from the GFC of two years previously. Tis would have been a good contribution to it. Instead Govt policy was to lower interest rates to get us all borrowing and spending more at the same time the government was wanting to do just the opposite!

  • The FT journalist Stephen Bush, commenting on Jeremy Hunt’s last budget Jeremy Hunt’s budget is more Alistair Darling than George Osbornewrote
    ” …the actual content of the Budget was more Alistair Darling in 2009 than George Osborne at any point from 2010 to 2016. Like Darling, Hunt is using the automatic stabilisers of welfare policy to shield households from some of the economic consequences of the crisis. Like Darling, he is using cuts to capital spending to signal his willingness to deliver austere budgets while pledging that worse is to come after the election.
    Like Darling, Hunt is hoping that something will come up which means he won’t have to do all of these things. And like Darling, when the time comes, it will probably be the other political party’s problem anyway”.
    “Whatever Labour may say between now and the next election, the reality is that they will end up having to sharply increase taxes. If the Conservatives end up getting back into office, they will almost certainly end up choosing tax rises over spending cuts too.”

    As John Reed comments above the school rebuilding issue has been developing at least since 1994. Vince Cable explained in 2016 why it has proven so difficult to get government action on this Why Governments Won’t Invest

  • >” The period of 2010 onwards was when the the school building maintenance and rebuilding program should have been expanded. There were spare resources in the economy at the time which aren’t available to the same extent now.”

    Trouble is Labour, Conservatives and LibDems got blinded by vanity and pushed ahead with a shiny new train set; HS2 despite the list of infrastructure investment projects with business and economic reports that stood up to scrutiny. Fundamentally, one of the problems is he ego’s of our politicians, who would rather be seen associated with some new shiny than simply doing the right thing and invest in the renewal of existing infrastructure investments such as our schools have been crying out for.

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