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The UK government will stump up “what it takes” to make sure that children can get to school safely, chancellor Jeremy Hunt promised on Sunday as Labour criticised his party’s “bare bones” response to a deepening crisis around the safety of the education estate.
Hunt told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the government had “acted fast” in 2018 when it was first alerted to the threat to schools built with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), initiating a review of 22,000 buildings where the material was known to have been used in the construction process.
He added that new information had come to light over the summer that had made the government reassess the safety rating of dozens of buildings, leading the Department for Education to order more than 100 schools to close sites just days before the start of the new academic year.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson criticised Hunt’s Conservative party for ending Labour’s school reform programme when it came to power in 2010, which she argued would have ensured every school in Britain was rebuilt or significantly refurbished by 2020.
“One of the very first acts of that incoming Conservative government in 2010 was to cancel Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme,” she said. “The chickens are coming home to roost.”
Labour has called on ministers to release a complete list of all of the schools that have had to close buildings due to the presence of Raac, which was a popular construction material in the 1970s and 1980s and is prone to collapse.
The demand comes amid concerns that the problem could extend beyond the more than 150 schools already contacted about the problem — 104 of which were asked to close sites.
The government confirmed on Sunday that thousands of schools have yet to respond to a survey about whether their buildings could have been built with Raac. It added that engineers will be sent this week to review the sites of any that believe it could be present.
In June a National Audit Office report revealed that the material was present in at least 65 schools in England, of which 24 required “immediate action”.
The UK public spending watchdog also noted that a government programme to rebuild or refurbish 500 schools with buildings in the most urgent need was behind schedule.
A government spokesperson confirmed that existing capital funding would be used to pay for short-term building works as well as for temporary accommodation, including Portakabins, for schools that had to close sites.
They added that the government will only consider covering the costs of renting external properties and of children’s transport to alternative sites on a case-by-case basis.
A growing number of other public buildings, including hospitals and courts, are now also known to be built with Raac. The NAO last month reported that surveys had found that 41 NHS buildings at 23 trusts contained the material.
Philipson said that Hunt’s financial commitment to schools amounted to a “bare bones” response to an escalating crisis that the party had been forewarned about.
“I can think of no more defining image about the last 13 years of Conservative government than children being sat in classrooms under metal props to prevent the ceilings literally falling in on their heads,” she said.