School building closures are political disaster for Rishi Sunak’s government – Financial Times

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Good morning. Parliament returns from its summer recess, but the usual “back to school” metaphors are more fraught than usual as parents across England face their kids being sent home, the term starting late or the risk of a tragic accident, with more than 150 school buildings made of Raac, a lightweight concrete that is prone to collapse. Some thoughts on the politics of that below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on X @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

Crumbling schools

Even before Jonathan Slater’s bombshell interview with the BBC this morning, the emergency closure of buildings in 104 schools in England over safety concerns — and the possibility of further closures and worse — looked to be an unmitigated political disaster for the government.

For Rishi Sunak, it is yet another thing that adds to the general sense of malaise around his administration — an issue that contributes to a general mood that the country needs a change, and that a big part of that change involves spending more money. For Jeremy Hunt, it means, inevitably, further demands on government spending and therefore limits his room for manoeuvre in the parliament’s final fiscal events. And for Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, it makes it much more likely that she will be moved from her post in Sunak’s reshuffle following the party conference in October.

But that Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department of Education, has now put the blame firmly not just on successive Conservative governments since 2018, but on Sunak in particular turns what was already going to be a difficult crisis for the government into a major personal one for the prime minister. That Sunak cut the budget for rebuilding schools in 2021, years after the government had been told about the problems the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) had created in the schools estate, is going to be the story of the week, the month, or for however long the Raac crisis upsets parents and disrupts education. It puts a difficult asterisk on a period that Conservative MPs hoped was one of their big assets going into the next election: Sunak’s tenure as chancellor.

Does it change perceptions much that at least 37 schools in Scotland may also have used Raac, and an uncertain number in Wales? I doubt it, frankly. It didn’t help Gavin Williamson at all that all of the UK’s devolved governments opted to use a poorly conceived algorithm to allocate grades in the absence of exams during Covid, and it hasn’t really helped the Conservatives when they’ve pointed at problems in the health service outside of England. And these are areas where the devolved governments actually do have quite a lot of power and flexibility, which isn’t really true of capital spending, even in largely devolved areas such as health and education.

And frankly, whatever line the Conservatives take about devolved administrations, this morning’s interview with the former top DfE civil servant will always be there to be thrown back at them.

Now try this

I had a lovely time at the FT Weekend Festival in London. It was fascinating to hear Jesse Armstrong’s reflections on Succession, Leïla Slimani on writing, migration and politics, and wonderful to meet so many of you. I’ll be working my way through the sessions I missed over the coming weeks — remember that you can watch back events from the festival for the next 90 days as part of your in-person pass, or by signing up for an “on demand” pass. And do register and say “hi” next year if I didn’t see you this year!

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