The Education Secretary has claimed that children "prefer" being taught in temporary classrooms after schools across England were forced to close buildings due to the presence of the collapse-risk reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
Gillian Keegan made the claim as she updated MPs in the House of Commons on the situation which has seen 174 schools in England having been identified as having RAAC on site as of 14 September. 250 temporary classrooms ordered by at least 29 schools so far, with Keegan also praising the "high-quality" of the Portakabin structures that children have been made to conduct classes from.
Responding to a question which reference the temporary structures, Keegan told the Commons: “I have been to a number of these schools and seen children and met children in the Portakabins, and in fact at the first school I went to the children were all petitioning me to stay in the Portakabin because they actually preferred it to the classroom.
“The Portakabins are very high quality and I would advise her to go and see some of the high-quality Portakabins that we have, and that is true.”
Keegan also defended her decision to holiday in Spain as the scandal hit schools at the end of August. The Education Secretary told MPs that the end of the month was "the first time" she could go abroad on holiday.
The comments come after she was caught on camera following an ITV News interview in Westminster, in which she criticised others for being "sat on their a***s". Keegan, who later apologised for her "choice language", said: "Does anyone ever say 'You know you've done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their a***s and done nothing. No signs of that, no?"
The RAAC crisis began just days before the start of the new term in English schools, with some forced to partially or fully close their buildings before welcoming pupils back for the new school year. Institutions have been implementing temporary structures to accommodate for the closures, as well as some schools re-introducing either a mix of face-to-face learning and distance learning or moving to a full distance learning schedule where applicable.
Labour's shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson criticised Keegan and the government's handling of the situation so far. In the Commons, Phillipson said: “Parents, families, staff, and above all, our children, deserve answers, and they deserve better from this government and better than this Secretary of State.”
Sector leaders have rounded criticised Keegan's comments over children "preferring" to learn in temporary classrooms.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The Education Secretary should be reflecting on why children prefer temporary accommodation. Much of the school estate is outdated and should have been refurbished or rebuilt many years ago.”
Union bosses have also hit out at the Education Secretary's comments that pupils "prefer" temporary classrooms, with Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, saying: “That pupils prefer temporary Portakabins to their previous classrooms says an awful lot about how far government’s neglect of the school estate has let things deteriorate.”
He added: “We still need a real sense of a clear plan, not just to put short-term mitigation measures in place, but to properly repair or replace buildings so they are fit for purpose. Propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option in the medium or long term.”
According to the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Keegan's comments were "reflecting a conversation" the Education Secretary had with pupils. They added that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak still had full confidence in Keegan.