Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it is “completely and utterly wrong” to suggest that he is to blame for failing to fully fund a programme to rebuild England’s schools when he was chancellor.
Thousands of pupils face disruption at the start of term this week following an order to fully or partially close 104 schools because of concerns about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which is prone to collapse.
Earlier Jonathan Slater, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE) from May 2016 to August 2020, claimed the Treasury had failed to fully fund school rebuilding schemes – including during Mr Sunak’s time at the helm.
He said he was “absolutely amazed” that a decision was made after he left the department to halve the school rebuilding programme.
Mr Slater said up to 400 schools a year need to be replaced, but the DfE got funding for 100 while he was the senior official.
Mr Slater said there was a “critical” risk to life in some schools.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The actual ask in the Spending Review of 2021 was to double the 100 to 200 – that’s what we thought was going to be practical at first instance.
“I thought we’d get it, but the actual decision that the chancellor took in 2021 was to halve the size of the programme.”
But asked if he was to blame for the concrete crisis, Mr Sunak said: “I think that is completely and utterly wrong.
“Actually one of the first things I did as chancellor, in my first spending review in 2020, was to announce a new 10-year school re-building programme for 500 schools.
“Now that equates to about 50 schools a year, that will be refurbished or rebuilt.
“If you look at what we have been doing over the previous decade, that’s completely in line with what we have always done.”
PM ‘putting lives at risk’
Labour accused the prime minister of “putting children’s lives at risk” following Mr Slater’s comments.
Analysis published by the party found that spending on school rebuilding between 2019 and 2020 was at £765m, but this fell to £560m the following year.
Spending dropped again to £416m in 2021 to 2022, the party said.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “The defining image of 13 years of the Conservative-run education system will be children sat under steel girders to stop the roof falling in.
“Rishi Sunak bears huge culpability for his role in this 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.”
Just days before the start of term more than 100 schools in England were told to fully or partially close as a result of safety concerns about RAAC, which was widely used from the 1950s to mid-1990s.
The Department for Education has so far refused to say which schools are affected.
‘Extra money’ will be available – Sunak
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has vowed to publish a list of the schools affected by the concrete crisis this week.
She also sought to clarify concerns around costs, insisting her department will pay for repairs and temporary accommodation.
Ms Keegan could not say how much the DfE will ultimately have to ringfence – but admitted the concrete crisis will likely cost “many many millions”.
Despite both Ms Keegan and Treasury sources suggesting the money will come from the DfE’s existing budget, Mr Sunak said “extra money” will be made available.
Mr Sunak said: “The Chancellor has been crystal clear that schools will be given extra money for these mitigations, it won’t come from their existing school budgets.”
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