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Concrete scandal: Minister issues ‘unreserved apology’ to schools after headteachers blamed

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is under fire over the concrete crisis (PA Wire)
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is under fire over the concrete crisis (PA Wire)

A minister has issued an “unreserved apology” to headteachers for the chaotic way the crumbling concrete crisis has been handled, the body overseeing school trusts said on Thursday.

More than 400 members of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) attended an online meeting to lay out their “grave” concerns over how the government had responded to the scandal and to question “whether they can rely on” its guidance.

Education minister Baroness Barran apologised after hundreds of headteachers received a letter from her office instructing them to urgently return a questionnaire on whether RAAC concrete was present in their buildings when they had already sent back the forms.

CST chief executive Leora Cruddas said “a significant number of CST members reported concerns about the RAAC portal”.

“What has emerged is that many or most of you had already [completed the survey] – for a number of you, multiple times,” Ms Cruddas said in a letter to headteachers on Thursday morning.

“The minister offered an unreserved apology for the tone of the letter and the fact that it appears to have been sent in error to many CST members.”

She added that the “most pressing issue” now was to establish “the reasons that a very large number of CST Members received letters”.

Ms Cruddas also hit out at the way ministers have handled the situation after education secretary Gillian Keegan told headteachers to “get off their backsides” and fill in the forms.

She told the Standard: “I’ve asked the department to reset its tone in external communications, because I don’t believe that some of the comments made in the media recently by politicians have been helpful or constructive.

“But equally I would stay that Baroness Barran’s response to our concerns has been incredibly rapid and she’s taking our concerns incredibly seriously.”

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete is a lightweight building material used from the 1950s up to the mid-1990s, but is now assessed to be at risk of collapse.

Thousands of students have been disrupted on the first week of term by the scandal.

Schools leaders also said they were anxious that DfE guidance over RAAC and are questioning whether they can rely on to identify the concrete in their buildings.

"Many CST members have expressed grave concern about the reliability of the DfE guidance and are questioning whether they can rely on it," Ms Cruddas said in her letter.

"Although I have been told by officials that there is a ‘triage’ and that visual inspection is not the only indicator of RAAC, we heard yesterday morning from members that they do not believe that this is sufficient in relation to concealed RAAC, which requires an invasive survey.

"The Minister offered to take this issue away and seek expert advice. I have asked for the DfE’s assessment or risk and reassurance on this matter as soon as possible."

Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Yet more evidence of incompetence from this shambolic Department and an Education Secretary who is incapable of gripping a crisis of her own making.

"The Minister has now rightly apologised for at least some of the bungling by the department throughout the RAAC crisis.

"The Education Secretary should now apologise for telling schools to get off their backsides and for blaming schools for the mess the Tories created’.”

Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson said: “Headteachers and governors have been working round the clock to reassure parents and secure surveyors. It’s totally tin-eared for ministers to accuse them of not doing their job, when in fact the Department lost their forms.

“This chaos is yet another example of the Conservatives’ failure to get a grip on the crumbling concrete crisis.”

The DfE was contacted for comment.