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6 September 2023

A state in disrepair

Crumbling schools exemplify an age of private affluence and public squalor.

By New Statesman

Rishi Sunak prides himself on his supposed competence. Since entering Downing Street almost a year ago, the Prime Minister has cast himself as a technocratic fixer in contrast to his reckless predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. But the ghosts of Mr Sunak’s past have returned to haunt him.

The full or partial closure of more than 100 schools in England over unsafe concrete has resulted in an ­unedifying blame game. Mr Sunak has insisted it is ­“utterly wrong” to claim he bears responsibility for the crisis. Yet the facts suggest otherwise.

As Jonathan Slater, the former permanent secretary for the Department for Education, revealed, Mr Sunak’s Treasury was told by officials in 2020 that there was a need to rebuild 300 to 400 schools a year in England. This should not have come as a surprise: reinforced ­autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), a building material widely used from the 1950s to the mid-1990s, is only designed to have a lifespan of 30 years. It was in 2018, as  our business editor, Will Dunn, recalls on page 9, that the first significant collapse occurred at a primary school.

Yet Mr Sunak ultimately provided funding for just 50 schools to be rebuilt. Mr Slater’s account was helpfully corroborated by the schools minister, Nick Gibb. “We put in a bid for 200, but what Rishi agreed to was to continue the rebuilding programme at 50 a year,” he told Sky News on 5 September.

The Prime Minister’s defence is that spending on rebuilding was in line with “the previous decade [the 2010s]”. Yet this is precisely the problem. For years, schools, as with so much of the public realm, have been underfunded.

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In 2010, the Conservatives dropped the previous ­Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future programme – an act the former education secretary Michael Gove later conceded was “crass and insensitive”. This led to the cancellation of around 715 school-improvement plans that would have addressed the looming concrete crisis. Though David Cameron and George Osborne, those self-congratulatory austerians, consistently vowed to “fix the roof when the sun is shining”, capital spending never returned to the levels required.

Mr Sunak, the ideological heir to the austerians, has continued their work. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has charted, average capital spending on schools is 26 per cent lower in real terms than in the mid-2000s and around 50 per cent below the peak reached in 2010.

[See also: Britain’s crumbling schools are the result of an investment crisis]

The full extent of the crisis remains unknown. Parents and children are being forced to play a grim lottery as the Department for Education insists that “most” schools will be unaffected but concedes that hundreds more will be. At least 41 hospital buildings and an unknown number of courts have also been found to contain Raac. Perhaps most disturbingly, the National Audit Office does not even deem concrete the greatest safety risk to schools, citing other threats such as asbestos (found within 80 per cent of schools responding to a DfE survey) and faulty electrical services (£2.5bn of repairs are needed).

In 2018, to highlight such neglect, we launched our “Crumbling Britain” series, exposing the decay of the public realm after years of misrule and austerity. Since then, there have been promises of change. After its ­election victory in 2019, the Conservative Party vowed to make “levelling up” its defining mission – to tackle regional inequalities and restore civic pride. But hampered by Mr Sunak’s austerian mindset and the Covid pandemic, the gap between rhetoric and reality was never bridged. On 5 September, Birmingham City ­Council, the UK’s largest local authority, declared itself effectively bankrupt.

Britain is now paying the price for a decade of distraction. Rather than addressing its fundamental economic and social challenges, it has embraced ideological ­crusades such as hard Brexit or Ms Truss’s tax cuts – with predictably farcical results.

Mr Sunak once appeared to offer the prospect of managed decline, but, as the country crumbles around him, even this is a distant hope. He seems to have neither the will nor the ability to lead competently. The question facing Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is whether it will fare any better – and end this age of private affluence and public squalor.

[See also: The school concrete crisis should terrify the Tories]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain