A senior civil service whistleblower has told the Observer that Tory ministers and their political advisers were “dangerously complacent” about crumbling school buildings constructed with aerated concrete, and that they were more concerned with saving money than improving safety.
The source, who worked in the private office of Nadhim Zahawi, the then education secretary, saw regular alerts crossing his desk. He said ministers and special advisers were “trying to get away with spending as little as they could” and hoping to “make do” rather than treating the problem with the urgency it required.
The insider, who no longer works in the Department for Education, said he had seen four or five detailed “submissions” from other civil servants to ministers and advisers on the specific issue of “reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete” Raac, in the space of a few months in early 2022.
Raac is a lightweight, bubbly form of concrete, usually found in roofs and occasionally walls and floors, and was used in many schools that were built from the 1950s to the 1990s. It looks like standard concrete but is weaker and less durable than the traditional reinforced material.
The whistleblowers’ remarks echo a series of emails leaked to the Observer last year in which civil servants said more money was desperately needed from the Treasury to repair dangerous school buildings. On 4 April 2022, officials raised the alarm, warning that some school sites were a “risk to life”.
The whistleblower added: “It just wasn’t a priority for the Spads [special advisers] or politicians. There is a good case for being cautious and prudent but the general environment of not funding things and trying to make do – that is where we are after 13 years [of Conservative government].”
He also pointed out that the DfE had been able to fund a large extra pay settlement for teachers this year from an underspend in its budget, suggesting there had been money available to do more on school rebuilding had the issue been a top priority.
On Thursday, with only days to go before children return to their classrooms after the summer holidays, the government ordered more than 100 schools to either shut buildings that were constructed with Raac, or cordon off parts of them. The DfE refused to say how many schools had been closed completely although the number is understood to be about two dozen.
Officials said the emergency measures were due to “a small number of cases where Raac had failed with no warning”. One of these is believed to have occurred last week.
Hundreds of specialist surveyors are now being sent out to schools known to be have been constructed to varying degrees with Raac to assess their safety, meaning inevitable disruption for pupils and staff, who in some case are being moved to temporary accommodation.
Labour is aiming to pin responsibility for spending cuts to the school rebuilding programme on Rishi Sunak after new analysis from the party showed that, since he was appointed chancellor in February 2020, the government’s total spending on the programme had been cut by a cumulative £869m.
The leaked emails published last year by this newspaper suggested that the Treasury was blocking more funds for school rebuilding. Labour’s analysis reveals that spending on school rebuilding in 2019-20 was £765m, but after Sunak became chancellor this dropped to £560m in 2020-21 and as little as £416m in 2021-22, a fall of 41% overall.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, told the Observer in an interview that it was “incredible” that the government had not heeded warnings and had refused to publish a detailed list of schools in danger.
“Labour warned time and again about the risks posed by the crumbling schools estate under the Conservatives but were met with complacency, obstinacy and inaction.
“Ministers need to come clean about the number of schools affected, what they knew, and when they knew, about the risks posed by Raac so that parents can be reassured their children are safe at school.”
Labour is planning to force a Commons vote this week to compel the government to reveal information about what it knew about the use of Raac and the dangers it posed. The party plans to put forward a “humble address” – an arcane parliamentary mechanism sometimes used to demand papers from government departments – to force the publication of a list of affected schools.
As parliament returns from its summer recess, Opinium’s latest poll for the Observer has Labour leading by 14 points with 42% of the vote share (+1 compared with a fortnight ago). The Conservatives are on 28% (+2). The Liberal Democrats are on 9% (-2), Reform UK is on 8% (-1) and the Green party is also on 8% (+1).
Sunak will be disappointed to see that his approval rating has not seen any recovery during the summer, despite a series of announcements on immigration and schools, which have been dogged with problems such as the concrete crisis.
The prime minister’s rating has fallen two percentage points in the past two weeks to -25% net (24% approve, 49% disapprove). The Labour leader Keir Starmer’s approval rating is -7% net (28% approve, 35% disapprove).
Similarly, views on who would make the best prime minister have also remained stable – Starmer now leads with 27% choosing the Labour leader, versus 23% who told pollsters they would pick Sunak.
A Department for Education spokesperson said:
“Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time and the issue of managing its risks - across all sectors - has spanned successive governments since 1994.
“The Department has been supporting those responsible for the maintenance of schools, such as Local Authorities and Multi-Academy Trusts to identify and mitigate against the safety risks posed by RAAC panels since 2018.
“In 2022, the Department went even further, and launched a questionnaire and survey programme, to ensure we had a good understanding of the prevalence of RAAC and that appropriate mitigations were in place. This is the most proactive approach to RAAC in schools of any Government in the world or indeed the UK.