Sunak cut school rebuilding despite ‘critical risk to life’ warnings, ex-perm sec says

Treasury halved programme to remedy crumbling concrete, Slater says as dozens close over safety concerns
Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street, London, ahead of delivering his one-year Spending Review in 2020. Photo: Matt Crossick/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

04 Sep 2023

A former permanent secretary has slammed Rishi Sunak for failing to properly fund the rebuilding of schools with crumbling concrete despite warnings they posed “critical risk to life”.

Jonathan Slater, who was perm sec at the Department for Education from May 2016 to August 2020, told the BBC he was "amazed" by the government's decision to halve the school rebuilding programme target from 100 to 50 schools per year. This decision was taken in Sunak’s 2020 Spending Review, shortly after Slater left government.

Responding to the comments, the prime minister said it is "completely and utterly wrong" to blame him for the failure to tackle reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in schools.

More than 150 schools have been found to be at risk of collapse as they are made from RAAC that has exceeded its 30-year lifespan. Many have been forced to close in the last week ahead of the new school year.

Slater said DfE carried out a survey of school buildings during his time as perm sec, which found between 300 and 400 school buildings needed to be replaced per year. These were schools built after the Second World War which were only supposed to have a design life of 30-40 years. Instead, the Treasury told the department it would fund 100 rebuilds per year.

According to Slater, DfE asked the Treasury for funding to double this to 200 as “that's what we thought was going to be practical in the first instance”. But in the one-year 2020 Spending Review, Sunak instead cut it back to 50 schools per year, and recommitted to the same figure in 2021.

“I was absolutely amazed to see that the decision made by the government was to half the school rebuilding programme down from 100 a year to 50 a year,” Slater said.

The 300-400 schools target was considered achievable because “there's only so much capacity in the construction industry [and] there's disruption if you close schools and rebuild them”, Slater explained.

Dozens of schools in England are fully or partially closed as the new academic year kicks off due to the potentially unsafe RAAC.

Slater said it had been “no secret” that the concrete was going to crack. “You don't know when any individual concrete block is going to crack, because it cracks on the inside,” he said. “But you know it's going to happen. And now it has.” 

“The frustrating thing in this particular case is that we'd carried out a survey, we knew what was needed, we knew that a proper school rebuilding programme was going to be required, otherwise these sorts of panics would take place,” Slater said.

“The Treasury, of course, have got a concern that there's never enough money for everything, but we were able to present them with really good data. We weren't just saying there's a significant risk of fatality; we were saying there was a critical risk to life if this programme is not funded," Slater added.

He also described how in 2018, whilst he was permanent secretary at DfE, a concrete block fell from the roof of a primary school.

“So it wasn't just a risk,”a noticeably exasperated Slater said. “It was actually starting to happen. So it was frustrating, as you can tell from my voice.”

The ex-perm sec said he had thought the department would get the necessary funding because of the quality of the data; the end of austerity declared in 2019 by Sunak’s predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid; and the 2019 appointment of Boris Johnson, who had promised to put more money into schools, as prime minister.

“I actually did think we would be able this time to increase the funding for the rebuilding programme,” Slater said.

Slater said education ministers had all seen the benefits of the programme during his time as perm sec – where he worked with four secretary of states – but the key hurdle was getting buy-in from the Treasury.

“There’s only so much money to go around for public spending in the round. You're trying to reduce taxes, particularly if you’re a Conservative chancellor. And so that was the real challenge,” Slater said.

He said the government had also prioritised opening new free schools, with this being a key commitment in the Conservative Party's 2015 manifesto.

"For me, as an official, that seemed that it should have been second to safety. But politics is about choices and that was a choice they made,” Slater said.

Separate analysis by Labour found spending on schools rebuilding fell from £765m in 2019-20 to £560m in 2020-21 and then £416m in 2021-22, a drop of 45%.

Rejecting criticism of his role in the crisis, Sunak said his programme to rebuild 500 schools in 10 years was “completely in line with” what the government “has always done”.

Asked if Sunak was to blame for the crisis, education secretary Gillian Keegan told the BBC: “No. We have a school rebuilding programme. Obviously as a department you’re always going to – the whole government is going to – ask for more than it is going to get. That is the nature of public spending and prioritising.

“But what we’ve been doing since Jonathan left is making sure we have a really thorough understanding of where there is RAAC, whether it’s critical or non-critical, and taking action. And [in] those surveys, which were done in about 90% of buildings that could be affected based on their age, about 1% of them have come back with RAAC and we have taken very swift action. I increased the action just this last week because of the new cases that we found.”

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has committed to "spend what it takes" to make schools safe but did not pledge any new funding to DfE's budget.

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