DfE chiefs pushed on lack of data on concrete crisis

Senior leaders from the department this week gave evidence to MPs on parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – who urgently called for more timely data on potential issues caused by RAAC problems

A parliamentary committee has voiced its exasperation at Department for Education senior leaders after they were unable to provide key data on the crisis related to unsafe concrete in school buildings.

DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood and infrastructure chief Jane Cunliffe repeatedly knocked back questions on the educational impact of new guidance on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – known as RAAC – at a Public Accounts Committee session hosted this week.

The perm sec reiterated that DfE had published a list of 147 schools affected by the discovery of RAAC. But she would not give MPs figures on the number of schools currently closed as a result of the situation, or an indication of the level of pupils affected.

MPs also unsuccessfully sought details on the number of temporary classrooms provided to schools that have had to place parts of their estate out of bounds because of heightened concerns about structural collapse due to RAAC that emerged last month.

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Acland-Hood said investigations had found that nine schools initially feared to have RAAC did not – in fact – have the material present. However she declined to give a figure for the number of schools that have so-far had suspicions of a RAAC presence confirmed.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said up-to-date information on the burgeoning building-safety situation in schools was “really important” for parents, teachers and MPs.

“We are more than a bit disappointed – disappointed is politely putting it – that you came without numbers on some of these issues,” she said.  “How do you intend to keep parliament and this committee, and our sister committee, jointly informed about progress?”

Acland-Hood said DfE wanted to publish its data on the crisis “in a regular rhythm”, which she said would be the case for other important management information.

“We will set out with ministers the strategy for publishing both the future list of schools, which we talked about, and the data and information that sits alongside that,” she said.

Elsewhere in the session, Acland-Hood said DfE’s current School Rebuilding Programme could be expanded as a result of the RAAC situation. She said the programme is presently expected to cover 500 schools, of which 400 have so-far been named.

Acland-Hood said schools already identified would not be taken out of the programme, but indicated that the 100 places still to be confirmed were expected to be taken by schools with RAAC.

“I would expect that we could be looking at an increase in the numbers of schools coming through the School Rebuilding Programme, but that will depend on the assessment of need as we work through with each school,” she added. “We will work through the short-term mitigations and get the work done, and then we will assess for each school what the need is for longer-term work.”

The perm sec said DfE had an “agreement” with HM Treasury that any expansion of the School Rebuilding Programme that was needed – or any other rebuild required – would be “the first call on resource” in the next spending review.

Acland-Hood said shorter-term remediation work on schools could be managed within DfE’s existing capital budgets.

“We have agreed with the Treasury that as we look at negotiations for the next SR, this will be our first priority for the capital spend,” she said. “That is the basis on which they are comfortable for us to make the commitment that we will rebuild or refurbish.”

The current spending-review period runs until spring 2025.

Jim Dunton

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