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Sunak RAACs up problems he can’t afford…

UK School Building
By Chris White
07 September 2023
Public Affairs

Yesterday Rishi Sunak had a torrid time at Prime Minister’s Questions. Accused by the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer of being a ‘cowboy builder’, the PM struggled to deal with questions about the lack of action from the government since reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) was first identified in schools in 2018.  

Senior civil servants at the Department for Education (DfE) had estimated in 2019 that between 300 and 400 schools a year needed replacing following questionnaires sent out to schools, yet the DfE’s budget allocation in 2021 only funded around 50 a year, meaning some schools would need to wait over a decade to replace affected buildings.  The inflation-adjusted education capital budget fell by 50% from its peak between 2010 and 2022, and Labour regard this as a smoking gun, tying the PM directly to the decisions he made as Chancellor three years ago.  

There are of course mitigating factors – only 147 schools have currently been identified as needing to be partially or completely closed, less than 1% of the total number of schools in the UK, and while Labour points to the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, cuts to the DfE budget were coming in 2010 due to the financial crisis regardless of who came to power. It’s easy to forget that the Labour Chancellor in 2010 Alistair Darling planned to reduce spending by 25%, with cuts “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s.   

The PM attempted to point these facts out in PMQs and paint Sir Keir as ‘Captain Hindsight’, yet it fell flat in the chamber, mainly because the government’s handling of the crisis has been so poor.  

The change of guidance before the new school term started was clearly done with the safety of all in mind, but to do so only two days before pupils were due on site was poor practice and more time should have been given to enable alternative provision and ensure staff and parents had time to adjust.  

The Secretary of State for Education’s absence from media interviews over the weekend when she should have been fronting coverage and explaining to staff, pupils and parents what was happening was odd, although perhaps it may have been justified given her gaffe on ITV lamenting that no-one was praising her for doing her job when she did return.  

The DfE publishing tweets which claimed ‘most schools unaffected’ was tone deaf at best when they had yet to publish a full list of schools which actually were affected. Indeed, the lack of transparency from the Department in general was ill-advised. In this type of crisis, maximum transparency is the best option, and yet the decision to publish the affected schools was not taken until the Opposition threatened to use a motion in Parliament to force the government’s hand. 

The last week has been a classic case study in how not to handle a crisis.  Instead of reassuring everyone that the government has a grip, it instead looks incompetent. This issue has cut through, and if the PM had hoped to focus on positive messages in the run up to Conservative party conference in three weeks’ time, this debacle is only racking up problems he can’t afford.