Inaction over Raac is slowing pupils’ return to classrooms, says Labour

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock

A lack of clarity and action over crumbling concrete in schools is slowing efforts to get pupils back into classrooms, Labour has said, arguing that ministers seem intent on covering up the scale of the crisis.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the Department for Education had not replied to parliamentary questions on the subject, had yet to update the list of affected schools, and was not giving headteachers answers about what would be paid for.

Nearly 150 schools across England have taken measures – ranging from propping up buildings to moving children into temporary classrooms or making them learn from home – after an urgent safety alert just before the start of the new term.

While the DfE has said that all capital spending for schools to tackle the crisis will be covered, Phillipson told the Guardian that schools had been in touch to say they remained in the dark, delaying vital work.

“There was the commitment made around capital costs, but I’ve spoken to many schools who are struggling to get answers on exactly how far that will extend,” she said.

Related: More than one in seven schools on Raac list were denied urgent funding

“They cannot get answers on what amounts to reasonable revenue costs, so they can’t get plans signed off for alternative transport, for alternative premises that might need to be hired to get children back into face-to-face learning.”

More widely, Phillipson said, the DfE was showing an alarming lack of openness about the issue, arguing that this was indicative of a wider government attitude that initially hoped to cover up the problem, and was now trying to minimise it.

“Ministers are happy just for this to drift and allow it to be somebody else’s problem,” she said. “A government in its dying days has no interest in fixing this. And frankly, it’s other people’s children and they have no interest in resolving it.”

On Monday it will be a fortnight since ministers last gave a formal update on the problem of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or Raac, a cheaper, lighter form of concrete with a suggested 30-year lifespan that has also been found in other public buildings including hospitals and courts.

Phillipson said Labour’s written parliamentary questions to the DfE on Raac in schools had not been answered, and that the initial list of affected schools had not been updated despite more having been identified.

“Parents deserve to know what’s going on,” she said. “[Gillian Keegan] was very keen to tell other people what they should be doing. It’s time the secretary of state got off her own backside, sorted this out, gave an update in the House of Commons and gave answers to parents about all these questions that are still outstanding.

“My feeling is that it’s a government that had hoped they could cover up what was going on. There has been a determined effort on the part of government ministers to keep as much of this as quiet as possible, and that is still ongoing.”

Labour is demanding that the DfE set up a Covid-style public data system for Raac in schools, not just covering which ones are affected, but also keeping a tally of the numbers of pupils learning remotely.

Reiterating an attack made by Keir Starmer on Rishi Sunak during prime minister’s questions, Phillipson argued that one reason for the lack of action appeared to be a lack of care for state education in a Conservative party consisting of many MPs and ministers who went to private schools.

“They are prepared to tolerate for other people’s children something that they would not be prepared to tolerate if it affected their own family,” she said. “I think the measure of politicians has to be whether you would accept what you are providing to the public as being good enough for your own family.”

A DfE spokesperson said the department was supporting schools with caseworkers and funding, and that the government had taken a “proactive approach to identifying Raac”.

They said: “We have been providing details of affected schools publicly, and will provide further updates this coming week. We are keeping MPs regularly updated through meetings, phone calls, letters and other usual parliamentary channels – and created a dedicated hotline specifically for MPs to ask questions and raise concerns.”