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UK prime minister Rishi Sunak cut the budget for rebuilding schools when he was chancellor, years after ministers were told there was a fatal danger of collapse, according to a former top civil servant.
The claim by Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, put Sunak squarely in the line of fire in the row over the safety of schools built with low strength concrete.
The prime minister hit back and insisted it was “completely and utterly wrong” to say he had inadequately funded school repairs, but tensions were running high in government.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, was caught on camera after an ITV News interview claiming she had not got credit for doing “a fucking good job”, adding: “Everyone else has sat their on their arse and done nothing.”
Slater said his former department warned the government in 2018 that 300 to 400 schools needed to be rebuilt each year. This was because the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) used in construction between the 1960s and 1990s only had a design life of 30 to 40 years.
“We weren’t just saying there was a significant risk of fatality, we were saying there was a critical risk to life if this programme is not funded,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Slater said, however, that the government at the time offered money to replace only 100 schools a year.
He said that after a spending review was completed in 2020, when Boris Johnson was prime minister and Sunak was chancellor, the decision was taken to halve the rebuilding programme further, from 100 schools a year to just 50, even though his department wanted to double the figure to 200.
Sunak said that one of the first things he did as chancellor in 2020 was announce a new 10-year rebuilding programme for 500 schools, equating to 50 a year; Downing Street claimed that this was broadly in line with the number of schools delivered by Tory administrations since 2010.
Sunak also highlighted that 95 per cent of schools would not be affected by closures or disruption due to the existence of unsafe concrete. Number 10 said the number of schools affected would be “in the hundreds not the thousands”.
The controversy, which also concerns the structural integrity of hospitals, courts and prisons, is being used by opposition groups as evidence of Conservative under-investment in public services, as well as the legacy of its austerity policies in the wake of the financial crisis.
Spending on the government’s school building programme fell by 41 per cent while Sunak was chancellor, from £765mn in 2019 to £416mn in 2021, according to data compiled by the opposition Labour party based on figures from the National Audit Office.
Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, said on Monday that Sunak bears “huge culpability for his role in the 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,” she said.
Keegan said that departments routinely asked for more money than they were granted. “Any time there’s been identified Raac, [schools] come straight to the department, and we fix it straight away,” she said.
Keegan said three events took place in the summer — including a ceiling panel at a school falling that had previously been classified as “non-critical” — which led her department to reassess more than 150 sites that had previously been given the same designation.
Allies of Keegan said her unguarded comments on Monday to an ITV News team reflected her frustration that she was taking the “tough decisions” to address an issue that had been known about since the 1990s.
Keegan admitted there could be hundreds more schools containing the fragile concrete, given that about 1,500 schools had still not returned a detailed questionnaire about the possible presence of the material.
Asked why the government has yet to publish a list of all the schools that had been contacted by the department and asked to close sites, Keegan said a list would be published this week once she was confident all parents of children affected had been alerted to the problem.