Gillian Keegan went on holiday after ministers raised the alarm that schools would need to close because of dangerous concrete, it has emerged.
On Tuesday, MPs on the education selection committee were told that ministers in the Education Secretary’s department had urged her to close school buildings with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) on Aug 21.
Officials had grown alarmed at reports of Raac that was rated non-critical collapsing. Days after Ms Keegan was advised to take action, “large pieces of concrete” started to fall from the ceiling of a school in England when workmen began drilling to install light fittings, the committee heard.
The Department for Education said on Tuesday that dozens more schools have been found to have potentially dangerous concrete. At least 174 schools in England have confirmed Raac, after 27 new schools were added to the list of those with the material.
The incident of concrete falling occurred on Aug 24. However, despite knowing of the likelihood of imminent chaos for the schools affected, Ms Keegan jetted off to her second home in Spain.
The dates reveal that head teachers were left in the dark for 10 days while she considered whether to take action to close schools and enjoyed a break with her family.
Some head teachers were only told to close buildings on the eve of the new school term in a crisis that has forced thousands of pupils to return to remote learning.
At the start of the month, Ms Keegan was left fighting for her job when she was filmed claiming other people had “sat on their a----” and saying she had done a “f---ing good job” at the end of an interview. She was unaware that she was still being recorded, and later apologised.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “Just a fortnight ago the Secretary of State’s response to questions about the management of the department’s own building, was simple and proud, the motto she has made her own: ‘Nothing to do with me.’
“How on Earth, even under this Prime Minister, weak as he is, even in this Government, how on Earth did she think she could get away with going on holiday rather than taking any form of action at all?”
In response, Mrs Keegan said: “In terms of my own decision, I went abroad because that was the first time I could go abroad.
“I went abroad for my father’s birthday, knowing that I would still be chairing meetings, which I did on the Saturday, on the Sunday, on the Monday, and then I made a decision to come back from holiday immediately, and I came back one day delayed because of air traffic control and I announced the decision on Thursday.”
“From the last case to the announcement was one week. That’s probably one of the quickest decisions that most people have made in this House, and we operationalised it, all whilst I was still working as I always do.”
The updated figures show that more than 115,000 children are in schools impacted by Raac. One school, Stepney All Saints Church of England secondary school in east London is fully remote learning, while a further 23 have partially moved to remote learning. An unspecified number of pupils have been relocated to an alternative school or temporary classrooms.
Some 57 of the affected schools are in Essex, eight are in Kent, six in Birmingham and five in Suffolk.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We’ve been repeatedly assured by the Department for Education that it acted immediately in response to the identification of an increased risk from Raac.
“Our concern is that it was known that Raac posed a level of risk to the structural integrity of schools from at least 2018, and more action should have been taken to mitigate this issue at a much earlier stage.
“If a more concerted effort had taken place on the part of the Government to implement a programme of action we might never have had the need for 11th hour emergency measures at the beginning of this term, along with all the disruption this has caused.”