Heroes: Schools Come Tumbling Down
‘Governments crack and systems fall
‘Cause unity is powerful’
We might only be hearing about this now, but it isn’t new, there have been numerous warnings.
A senior civil service whistleblower is reported as saying that Tory ministers and their political advisers were ‘dangerously complacent‘ about crumbling school buildings, and that they were more concerned with saving money than improving safety.
The source, who worked in the private office of Nadhim Zahawi, the then education secretary, saw regular alerts crossing his desk. He said ministers and special advisers were ‘trying to get away with spending as little as they could‘ and hoping to ‘make do‘ rather than treating the problem with the urgency it required.
The insider, who no longer works in the Department for Education, said he had seen four or five detailed ‘submissions’ from other civil servants to ministers and advisers on the specific issue of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (‘Raac’), in the space of a few months in early 2022. (1)
In 2018, there was ‘a near miss’ the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) reported after the partial collapse of a roof at a primary school in Kent. Fortunately, it happed over a weekend, when the school was unoccupied, thus avoiding any injuries.
As a result, SCOSS issued an alert, warning that the collapse was caused by the roof’s construction using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), and said ‘sight must not be lost of the fact that the 2018 collapse was sudden with very little noticeable warning‘.
Initial warnings appear to go back to the 1990s when SCOSS report first warned of the dangers. The Local Government Association has been raising alarm bells since 2018. In 2020, building professionals expressed concerns that they were frequently encountering Raac planks in school buildings, and flagging that they were becoming more defective over time. In 2022, the Institution of Structural Engineers warned that not all existential defects in Raac buildings were visible, and the Office of Government Property issued an alert saying that it considered Raac to be ‘life-expired’ and thus liable to collapse.
‘it considered Raac to be ‘life-expired’ and thus liable to collapse’
Now we are panicking, the government has ordered more than 100 schools in England to close only days before the beginning of the autumn term. Ministers expect the number to grow once a survey of almost 600 at-risk buildings has been finalised. These closures will be highly disruptive for pupils: some will have to learn remotely, others will have lessons in temporary classrooms or will have to move school.
The current PM, Rishi Sunak, refused to properly fund a school rebuilding programme when he was chancellor, despite officials presenting evidence that there was ‘a critical risk to life‘ from crumbling concrete panels, the Department for Education’s former head civil servant has said.
After the department told Sunak’s Treasury that there was a need to rebuild 300 to 400 schools a year in England, he gave funding for only 100, which was then halved to 50, said Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary of the department from 2016 to 2020.
‘For me as an official, it seemed that should have been second to safety,’ Slater said. ‘But politics is about choices. And that was a choice they made.’
Interviewed on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Jeremy Hunt said: ‘We will spend what it takes to make sure children can go to school safely, yes.’
But hours later, Treasury sources briefed that any such funding will come from the Department for Education’s existing budget for buildings – and not from additional funds.
It isn’t just schools: there are at least 24 hospitals, seven court buildings and four government buildings affected. Harrow crown court had to close altogether last month.
This disruption, when added to the recent increase in absenteeism, and exam results showing that the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils is once again widening, paints a worrying picture. The government had already decided against funding the pandemic recovery programme recommended by experts, now they will be presiding over another significant interruption to learning. This was so avoidable, they already knew that Raac was out-of-time, with better planning the chaos could have been minimised.
‘This is just another example of the damage caused by austerity’
This is just another example of the damage caused by austerity. Once elected, the Conservatives slashed the funding to New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The backlog of repairs has grown, while ministers prioritised the creation of expensive new free schools over maintenance of existing infrastructure. Where schools have been rebuilt, funding has often depended on deals with residential property developers.
We are now on our fifth education secretary in just over a year; no wonder chaos abounds!
Another example of the ‘nothing works and that the country is falling apart’ caused by Tory meanness, was the meltdown of the national air traffic services (Nats), which caused the cancellation of 1,600 flights with many others delayed.
Needless to say we had some vainglorious comments from Tory ministers describing the systems that manage so many planes using British airspace as the ‘envy of the world‘. Really! This is desperate, we are anything but the envy of the world.
The fact that everything is falling apart is easy to explain. Between 1949 and 1978 net public sector investment averaged 4.5% of GDP. It then fell in the Thatcher years to zero, before climbing under New Labour to nearly 3% of GDP in 2010. Austerity prompted another steep fall, since when it has bumped along at about 2% of GDP. (2)
An example of what could have been achieved can be seen across the channel in France, where public investment has been 50% higher as ours for the past 20-years. As a result, the country works:
- High-speed train networks,
- Mandatory enrolment of three-year-olds in nursery schools,
- A generous welfare system,
- Sector-wide collective bargaining arrangements mean it has much less poverty than Britain,
- They have invested in research and development, resulting in the registration of twice as many patents as us,.
- France has more companies in the global top-100 than any other European country,
- In terms of levelling up, they have built four new battery gigafactories in the depressed north-east,
- They have six out of Europe’s 10 richest billionaires, more than any other country.
This proves that, in the 21st century, the route to prosperity is not lower but higher taxes, which buy infrastructure, fairness, R&D and high skills.
Like it or not, despite facing many of the same problems as other countries, such as an ageing population, the climate crisis and the diminishing returns for most people from modern capitalism, we are struggling more than our contemporaries. Not only are we lagging behind France and Germany, we are being steadily caught up by previously much poorer societies such as Slovenia and Poland.
‘we are being steadily caught up by previously much poorer societies such as Slovenia and Poland’
As has been well publicised, without London, the UK would be poorer, in terms of GDP per capita, than even the poorest US state, Mississippi.
Unlike the 1970s, the last period in our history when there was widespread talk of national decline, the country’s problems can’t be simplistically pinned on Labour administrations.
The right like to describe our troubles as primarily economic, focusing on the classic capitalist concerns of productivity, growth and wealth, rather than the distribution of assets and income, or the extent or job satisfaction. Other social, cultural, and environmental measure are overlooked totally, as we focus on the never-ending competition between nations, often referred to as ‘the global race’.
Just prior to the Tories taking office in 2010, in their book ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett described ‘the contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries’. They explained: ‘As affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems.’
‘our crumbling infrastructure is just another example of a country neglected and disintegrating’
Even if there is an economic recovery as there was in the 1980’s, it will create new problems. The 1980’s boom created a harsher, more individualistic country after the less dynamic but more egalitarian Britain of the 70s. Whilst the media saw the boom as a success story, millions of people were made unemployed so that Britain could become more ‘competitive’.
Today, both the Tories and Labour are focusing on growth to repair the damage 13-yrs of Tory mis-government has caused to public services and our individual finances. Labour, under Starmer, appear to have given up on the idea that a better Britain can be created partly by increasing taxes on the elites who have benefitted from our profoundly unequal economy.
In many ways our crumbling infrastructure is just another example of a country neglected and disintegrating. After almost 15 years of austerity imposed by Conservative chancellors what else could we expect.
Everything we do is based on short-termism. Our crumbling public buildings are not a new issue, politicians have simply chosen to look the other way. Just as they always do.
But then, it’s priorities!
‘Career opportunities, the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock’
- Raac is a lightweight, bubbly form of concrete, usually found in roofs and occasionally walls and floors, and was used in many schools that were built from the 1950s to the 1990s. It looks like standard concrete but is weaker and less durable than the traditional reinforced material.
A state of the union piece from Philip, and what a state it is:
The shambles that was air traffic out-of-control last, and this week crumbling public buildings, only serves to highlight the gross underinvestment in the infrastructure of the country.
Since Thatcher took power in 1979, both spending and the size of the state has shrunk.
Whilst, initially it was new and innovative, now it has just become part of life. People have become so accustomed to it that we just shrug and move on….nothing to see here!
Blair was better, but even then his latter years saw a return to what is viewed as Tory policy. Should Starmer be elected we can expect to see this again, but more of that later in the week.
Low taxes, small state, and gearing up everything towards growth has become the norm. We have been told that growth equals prosperity for so long that it’s now seen as true.
What is never said is prosperity for who. There is no doubt that for a minority the 13-yrs of Tory mis-government have been bountiful. The majority just get poorer, but here’s the trick; give them someone to blame. The EU stopping us growing, immigrants over here taking our jobs!
It’s all lies, it’s the system, born poor, stay poor. Your schooling will be bad, therefore no qualifications, there are no apprenticeships anymore, it’s the gig economy.
It’s what stirred punk in 1976.
Lyrically, we start with the Style Council and “Walls Come Tumbin’ Down, we finish with the Clash’s Career Opportunities”. It’s 46-yrs old and as Rotten would have said, “fuck all has changed”. Enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s