Furious parents today blasted the return to lockdown learning amid the RAAC concrete crisis – as teachers were forced to crouch outside the school gates with laptops because they’ve been banned from entering.
The majority of UK’s 24,000 schools will be back by tomorrow morning – but 104 are closed or partially closed due to the use of aerated concrete with one headteacher predicting disruption for children until 2025.
One parent of a pupil at St Benet’s Catholic Primary in Ouston, County Durham, has had to delay starting a new job as childcare worries deepen amid the crisis.
Wishing to remain anonymous, the mother, whose child is due to start Year Six, said: ‘We’re not sure when the school will open again and it’s the not knowing which is the worry.
‘We don’t know if it’s going to be a few days or even longer. Apparently the school is working with the trust today to come up with an update. I’m getting bothered about it because my daughter is going into quite an important year group. It’s the year she does the SATS.
‘We’re just all up in the air at the moment and home schooling is not ideal. We tried it in Covid and it doesn’t work. I was supposed to be starting my new job but that’s on hold now.’
Despite the criticism, Schools Minister Nick Gibb today insisted that the Government’s response to the crumbling concrete crisis has been ‘world-leading’.
There is a scramble for portable cabins, portable loos and tents because classrooms and toilets are closed for safety reasons. Thousands of students have been asked to bring packed lunch for the foreseeable because of kitchens are shut with marquees planned as temporary canteens.
At Crossflatts Primary in Bingley, West Yorkshire, school staff have divided the main hall into three classes for years four, five and six as their classrooms have been affected by the issue.
Heather Mullarkey, 36, at teacher herself, has a daughter in year four and her youngest daughter was starting her first day today. She said that the school is planning a ‘cabin village’ of temporary classrooms.
‘My daughter was in yesterday and I’m a teacher, so when they said they were dividing the main hall into classes, I thought ‘god help them with 80 eight-to-11-year-olds in the hall’, she told MailOnline, adding: ‘But they sent us picture in the hall and how they’ve set it up, they’re like proper classrooms, they’ve done an amazing job of it’.
Staff at a school affected by the country’s concrete crisis were seen crouching on the pavement outside the gates with their laptops this morning.
One worker at St Anne’s Catholic Primary in Gateshead confirmed the group were trying to get as close to the building as possible to access the wi-fi after being banned from the grounds.
St Anne’s was meant to reopen today but remained shut. However, there were no sign of any maintenance work or inspections being carried out.
Gemma Chapman’s four-year-old daughter Violet was meant to start reception this morning.
Gemma, 39, said: ‘We all found out about the closures on Friday when the school sent us e-mails and messages. I think a lot of parents are questioning how long the issue has been known about.’
Gemma added: ‘It’s typical that this has happened right at the end of the holidays’.
Furious parents blasted ministers today over their handling of the schools concrete crisis, with pupils left wondering if they are heading back to lockdown learning for months because their classrooms are crumbling.
There is turmoil all over the country after more than a hundred schools in England were told they could not fully open because of safety fears on the eve of the start of the autumn term.
The last-minute scramble has left thousands of families ‘stressed to bits’, as they took to social media to share their frustration over the farce and why it wasn’t addressed over the holidays.
One mother, posting an image of a freshly-cleaned blazer, shirt and tie, wrote: ‘The uniform will remain hanging there; my daughter’s school is closed because #RAAC [Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete].
‘She was looking forward to starting her secondary school today. Now sitting anxiously home; yet another education disruption. Why was this problem not fixed before the summer?’
St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive School in Eltham, south east London, has been forced to put its girls’ and boys’ toilets out of action as well as the school hall, gym, and drama studio.
The school is also considering putting a marquee up for youngsters to have packed lunch meals, as the canteen has been closed.
One mum, whose child had their first day in year 7 today said she was only told about the concrete crisis on Thursday.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said: ‘We only got told about it on Thursday last week.
‘My child was really excited to start school, but now they’ve got to use portable loos as toilets and eat in marquees.
‘I think the way the Government has handled it is a bit of a mess.’
Buckhurst Hill Community Primary School in Essex said it had identified that aerated concrete was present in its central building and that four classes will need to be taught at a nearby school while this is addressed.
It said reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) was in the roof, affecting eight of 14 classrooms, the dining hall, part of the kitchen, some children’s toilets, administrative offices and a staff room.
Of the eight affected classes, alternative space has been found at the school for half, while the remaining four will be taught from a nearby school in the same trust whose buildings are unaffected by Raac.
The school said it would rely on packed lunches to meet the needs of children on free school meals, with arrangements in place from Monday.
‘Staff have worked around the clock to get pupils back to school and to these new temporary arrangements as soon as possible,’ the school said in a statement.
‘We are fortunate to be part of a very positive and collaborative school community – parents, staff and the wider community have been completely supportive, enabling us to focus on the safety and education of our pupils. As you will appreciate, this has been a challenging period.’
Year 7 pupils arrived for their first day at secondary school today, with the rest of the pupils due in on Wednesday.
It comes as Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is said to be fighting for survival today after claiming she is doing ‘a f***ing good job’ while others had ‘sat on their a***s’ in an embarrassing ‘hot mic’ incident yesterday.
Last week she was holidaying in Spain when headteachers had to scramble to find temporary classrooms or carry out last minute repairs after the Department for Education told them last Thursday that aerated concrete panels could crumble and collapse.
In some schools up to half of buildings contained Raac concrete, meaning that classrooms, toilets, staff rooms and corridors have had to be sealed off. This has led to a return to online learning for thousands of children, echoing the dark days of the pandemic that was so damaging to the education of millions of children.
Sarah Ingham, 46, from Hebburn, South Tyneside, is recovering from breast cancer and may now have to cancel crucial hospital appointments after school start was delayed for her daughter Lucy.
She said: ‘I am sitting here stressed to bits. We all know school is closed tomorrow [Wednesday] and a crystal ball might tell me after that.
‘I can feel my anxiety rising. Lucy is missing her friends and just wants to be back. I am stressed with the not knowing. I am so worried that if Lucy isn’t back in face-to-face education soon, my hospital appointments may have to be cancelled and moved, which is going to have a knock-on effect on my health.’
Jill Simpson, 51, received an email on Friday advising her that St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham would not be reopening as planned and teaching would be done online for the foreseeable future. Ms Simpson, whose child is starting Year 10, said: ‘My daughter’s grades are slipping due to loss of school and teachers’ strikes and Covid, so we now have to get a private tutor for maths for her to start with to bump her grades back up’.
Tori Hamblin, from Hadleigh, Suffolk, fears she may have to quit her job as a HR manager in the care industry if online learning returns for as long as feared.
Her eight-year-old Phoebe is now not in school this week but her mother fears it could be months.
She told The Times: ‘As a parent I feel really sad. My daughter’s last two school years at primary were affected by Covid then we had teachers’ strikes, and now this. I am worried. Her education could really suffer from this.
‘I do have to be in the office sometimes. So it’s not ideal — I’d be at risk of losing my job. I wouldn’t have a choice. It’s just a massive headache’.
Tens of thousands of children are heading back to classrooms in England this week despite hundreds of schools still having no idea whether they will be teaching in unsafe buildings containing RAAC – a lightweight form of concrete used between the 1950s and 1990s. Some 1,500 schools have not returned surveys asking whether they have concerns about the concrete on their estates.
Exasperated Tories have branded Gillian Keegan as a ‘damning indictment’ of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet – after she said she’s doing ‘a f***ing good job’.
The Education Secretary was caught out by the ‘hot mic’ incident yesterday as she said others had ‘sat on their a***’ after an interview with ITV news – as Rishi Sunak was told to get a grip over the school concrete crisis.
It has emerged that Keegan was on holiday in Spain – where she reportedly owns properties in Madrid and Marbella – last week while the crisis unfolded.
Aides said that she was ‘working from home’ between August 25 and 31, when it was announced more than 100 schools would be closed, The Telegraph reported.
MPs have now condemned both Keegan and the Prime Minister himself for failing to get a grip on the crisis.
One Tory MP told the newspaper: ‘The way she’s conducted herself – in particular in that ITV interview – shows she is selfish and shameless and not fit to stay in office.
‘It’s a damning indictment of Rishi Sunak and the people he has appointed to his Cabinet.’
Another added that they believed Ms Keegan had been ‘over-promoted’, while one more said she was on her last chance to keep her position in government.
The concrete crisis has meant scores of pupils began the school year by learning online in an echo of the huge disruption caused by the pandemic.
Teachers spent the weekend scrambling to erect tented classrooms and acquiring festival-style toilets in a bid to keep classrooms open. The closures left parents racing to find emergency childcare as they juggled remote learning with full-time work.
However, it has come to light that initial concerns were raised early last month, weeks before the last-minute panic before schools returned.
Ms Keegan came under fire for failing to appear on the airwaves over the weekend to address the issue, and instead released a bizarre video with a dance music soundtrack.
In a round of broadcast interviews yesterday, she admitted hundreds of schools could be affected by crumbling reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
But then in an extraordinary outburst, filmed as a TV camera repositioned for extra shots, she said: ‘Does anyone ever say, you know what, you’ve done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their a**e and done nothing? No signs of that, no?’
She said ITV journalist Daniel Hewitt, who conducted the interview, had been ‘pressing me quite hard’ and claimed he was ‘making out it was all my fault’.
In her apology, the Education Secretary refused to say who she believed had ‘sat on their a**e’. She added: ‘It was an off-the-cuff remark after the news interview had finished, or apparently after it had finished.
‘I would like to apologise for my choice language.’
In other developments on a chaotic day in Westminster:
- Mr Sunak insisted that 95 per cent of England’s schools were unaffected – leaving open the possibility that more than a thousand could still be hit by the crisis;
- Labour’s Keir Starmer said ministers appeared to be trying to ‘pass the buck’ for the closures and said the situation was descending into farce;
- Union leaders wrote to Mrs Keegan demanding urgent answers on the RAAC ’emergency’ – including clarity over the funding and support for schools;
- The Labour-run Welsh Government said two schools on Anglesey that had been due to open for the autumn term today would be closed temporarily;
- The Scottish Government confirmed that RAAC had been discovered in 35 schools with local authorities in the process of checking other buildings;
- The Ministry of Justice is inspecting buildings built in the 1990s for RAAC after Harrow Crown Court was found to contain the material;
- The PM is facing yet another by-election after former Tory chief whip Chris Pincher lost an appeal against a lengthy Commons suspension over groping allegations.
Mr Sunak was dragged into the concrete crisis yesterday after a former top civil servant claimed the PM had failed to fully fund a programme to rebuild schools.
Jonathan Slater, ex-permanent secretary at the Department for Education, blamed the Prime Minister for halving the rebuilding budget while he was chancellor in 2021.
Mr Sunak rubbished the claim, insisting: ‘Actually one of the first things I did as chancellor, in my first spending review in 2020, was to announce a new ten-year school rebuilding programme for 500 schools. Now that equates to about 50 schools a year that will be refurbished or rebuilt. If you look at what we have been doing over the previous decade, that’s completely in line with what we have always done.’
The row follows a lacklustre summer which has riled many Tory MPs who fear the PM is not doing enough to win the next election.
They have grown frustrated by stubbornly poor poll ratings and misfiring campaigning events such as ‘small boats week’ – a plan to hail progress in tackling Channel crossings that soon unravelled.
A senior backbencher said: ‘The Government is spending all its time addressing problems and cock-ups from the past – that’s all the media we’re getting. It’s time to get on to the front foot and have a positive message, otherwise the floating voter will start firming up for Labour.’
Another ex-minister said that Mr Sunak was ‘showing he can’t cope and is not up to the job sadly’.
No 10 said Mr Sunak yesterday held a cross-government meeting with key departments affected by the concrete crisis – including education, health and justice. He is said to have made clear that parents should be given clarity and reassurance.
Ministers have also promised that a list of schools confirmed to have RAAC in their buildings will be published this week. The material was used for many public buildings between the 1950s and the mid-1990s and is prone to failure.
The collapse of Singlewell primary school in Gravesend, Kent, in 2018 sparked concerns over the concrete, which was dubbed ‘Aero-like’ by structural engineers.
But it was the collapse of a beam at a school once deemed to be safe during the summer that spurred action.
A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘The Education Secretary took the cautious and proactive decision to change guidance on Raac and this week has chaired daily operational calls with ministers and senior officials in the department and virtually.’