Education secretary outburst was 'frustration at lack of recognition for civil servants', says minister

Schools minister says Keegan felt officials' hard work wasn't being acknowledged amid building-safety crisis
Gillian Keegan. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

05 Sep 2023

Education secretary Gillian Keegan was “frustrated about the lack of acknowledgement” of civil servants’ work identifying school buildings at risk of crumbling when she unleashed a torrent of expletives at the end of an ITV interview, one of her junior ministers has said.

The comments came as the head of the National Audit Office accused the government of taking a “sticking plaster approach” to school-building maintenance and other government projects.

Schools minister Nick Gibb told LBC  that Keegan's rant was referring to the 5% of bodies such as local authorities and trusts responsible for school buildings who have not responded to the government’s survey on the prevalence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.

She was recorded saying: “Does anyone ever say, you know what, you've done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing? No signs of that, no?"

Gibb said: "Because this is such a serious issue, from 2022 onwards we have been very proactive with dealing with those responsible bodies." He added that a "small minority" had not responded with their questionnaires and that DfE has had to chase them.

He said: "What she was basically saying is that the civil servants in the department have worked really hard in identifying RAAC, sending engineers out to identify this evidence, making a really big decision and rolling out the consequences of that deicison."  

The education secretary apologised over her profanity-laden comments and told Sky News yesterday: "I wasn't talking about me, actually. I was talking about the department. The job I was talking about started in March 2022 so way before I was in."

Gibb, a long-serving minister in DfE, also confirmed the veracity of former permanent secretary Jonathan Slater’s remarks yesterday that the DfE had tried to get Treasury funding to double the number of school rebuilds to 200 a year whilst Sunak was chancellor, with the Treasury instead halving the figure to 50.

He said the Treasury had, however,  needed to balance DfE's request against bids for funding from across government. Gibb added that that the £59.6bn the government is investing into schools next year is a "record amount".

Don’t ignore unglamourous parts of government, NAO head warns

Meanwhile, National Audit Office comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies accused the government of failing to give sufficient priority to “unflashy but essential tasks such as efficiently maintaining public buildings and replacing obsolete technology”, instead favouring “more eye-catching new projects”.

He said in a Times comment piece that his has led to “poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking plaster approach”.

The watchdog released a report earlier this summer on the condition of school buildings, which concluded the school estate was decling following years of underinvestment, with about 700,000 pupils "learning in schools that the responsible body or Department for Education believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment". "Most seriously, the DfE recognises significant safety concerns across the estate and has escalated these concerns to the government risk register," the report added.

Davies said the NAO identified similar problems caused by the lack of a robust long-term programme of building maintenance and replacement in a report on the government’s New Hospital Programme published in July. “The need to tackle RAAC in some hospitals is one reason that eight new hospitals planned by 2030 will now come later,” Davies said.

He said there were also similar issues with government IT, with ageing systems creating problems for service users, such as state pensioners missing out on payments they are entitled to, and outdated technology acting as a “brake on vital innovation in the delivery of frontline services”.

In this area, Davies said the NAO was pleased to see a new focus from the government on identifying public services where digital transformation, and better quality data, can make the biggest difference to service users and taxpayers. “Just like buildings, this will require long-term investment to deliver most value,” Davies said.

He also warned that the “imperative to get the most from every pound of public money has never been stronger” due to the “many pressing demands on public funding in the coming decades, ranging from the UK’s net-zero ambitions to demographic changes”. 

Davies said large-scale innovation will be needed to decarbonise the economy, reduce ill-health and tackle other government priorities but the government also needs to maintain focus on “less glamorous drivers” of long-term value for money, such as fit-for-purpose buildings and up-to-date IT.

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