A former senior official at the Department for Education accuses Rishi Sunak of inadequate funding for school rebuilding, resulting in widespread disruption.
In a recent revelation, former Department for Education permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater, has pointed fingers at Rishi Sunak, alleging that the Treasury failed to provide sufficient funds for school rebuilding initiatives. This controversy comes at a time when concerns about the safety of certain school buildings have led to partial or full closures, affecting thousands of students across England.
Funding Shortfalls and Missed Opportunities
Slater, who held the position of permanent secretary from May 2016 to August 2020, expressed his astonishment at the decision to reduce the school rebuilding program’s size after his departure from the department. He claimed that during his tenure, the Department for Education (DfE) secured funding for only 100 schools out of the required 400 replacements per year, a situation he found “frustrating.”
While Slater had left the department with optimism that additional funding efforts would succeed, he revealed that the chancellor’s decision in 2021 was to halve the program’s size. This revelation has further intensified the ongoing debate about the state of England’s aging schools, highlighted by a National Audit Office report indicating that up to 700,000 children are being taught in buildings in need of replacement or major refurbishment.
Safety Concerns Trigger School Closures
Days before the start of the academic term, over 100 schools in England were instructed to fully or partially close due to safety concerns related to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), which was widely used in construction from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. Despite these closures, the Department for Education has yet to disclose the affected schools.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has assured the public that a list of affected schools will be published this week. She also mentioned that contracts with three companies providing portable buildings have already been secured to establish temporary classrooms.
Defending School Funding Record
In response to Slater’s allegations, Education Secretary Keegan defended the Conservative government’s record on school funding. She announced 239 school rebuilding projects and emphasized the party’s commitment to improving school infrastructure. However, she did not specify the timeframe for completing these projects, stating only that they would be done “as soon as possible.”
Opposition and Calls for Transparency
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson criticized the Conservative government’s handling of the situation, stating that the impact of underfunded schools would be a lasting image of their 13 years in power. She placed significant responsibility on Rishi Sunak for his role in the issue and called for transparency regarding the affected schools and the risks associated with Raac.
Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Munira Wilson also placed blame on Rishi Sunak, labeling his funding decisions as short-sighted. She highlighted the consequences that students and parents across the country are now facing due to these decisions.
Wider Assessment Beyond England
The issue of Raac is not limited to England alone. Schools in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also undergoing assessments for the presence of Raac. The Scottish Government has confirmed its presence in 35 schools but noted that none pose an immediate risk to pupil safety. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government stated that councils and colleges have not reported any presence of Raac.
As the debate surrounding school rebuilding funding intensifies, the spotlight remains on the government’s commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of students in the UK.