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From Telegraph & Argus, September 6th 2023
Written by Natasha Meek

A school confirmed to have collapse-risk concrete was due to be rebuilt as part of the Government’s axed school rebuilding scheme.

Holy Family Catholic School in Keighley was named in the Government's list of schools with confirmed reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete - known widely as RAAC - as of August 30. 

Students attending the secondary school and sixth form are facing a delayed start to the new school year, the Government confirmed.

Now, a BBC investigation has found at least 13 schools confirmed to have RAAC were included in the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

The Labour scheme would have renewed every secondary school in England, rebuilding half of them and refurbishing the rest.

But in 2010, BSF was cancelled by then-education secretary Michael Gove amid concerns over its cost and scope. 

The Conservative Government has come under fire from the opposition and unions. 

John Grogan, former Labour MP for Keighley, told the Telegraph & Argus: "Both pupils and parents at Holy Family have faced a really difficult start to the term. Many students will lose those first vital days of a new school year which set the tone and the work programme for the year ahead.

"Many of their dads and mums are trying to juggle work with unexpected childcare commitments. They will want assurances about the extent of RAAC in the buildings and what action is going to be taken."

Mr Grogan, who will contest the seat again at the next election, added: "In July 2010 one of the first acts of the new Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, was to cancel Labour’s programme to rebuild schools which included Holy Family.

"If that programme had gone ahead all pupils would be in school this week beginning the new term. The Government must urgently review the need to rebuild Holy Family for the future and not just do a patch up job.

"Last week they announced money to build a new sixth form college in the town so the funds clearly are available."

Robbie Moore, Conservative MP for Keighley, said all year groups are planned to return to Holy Family next week, on Monday, September 11.

The MP said: "The safety of our children is paramount. That is why the government's decision to take a more cautious approach to the presence of RAAC in our schools was absolutely the right one.

"I have spoken with the headteacher at Holy Family and the Secretary of State for Education and have been reassured steps are underway to address the structural concerns at the school. The Academy Trust who oversee Holy Family have already been working closely with the Department for Education for some time. 

"Crucially, the Department for Education have confirmed they will fund any works necessary to address structural concerns relating to RAAC at Holy Family. This includes any short-term emergency works that may be required together with any longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects.

"It is disappointing to see Labour, including the town’s former MP, use this situation as a party-political broadcast, stoking fear amongst parents, young people, staff, and the wider community. What parents and students need is action and reassurance. I will continue to do everything I can to support Holy Family to achieve this."

The state of England’s schools is in the spotlight after more than 100 schools were ordered to fully or partially shut days before the start of term over safety concerns.

Schools confirmed to be affected by RAAC include Crossflatts Primary School and Eldwick Primary School in Bingley; Christ Church Primary Academy in Windhill; and Baildon C of E Primary School.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union Geoff Barton said: “I think the nation’s parents will think this just reinforces a sense that we have got a Government that frankly doesn’t care, and hasn’t cared about education for many years.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today that there were “all kinds of flaws” with the BSF programme, “but it was saying something important, that the nation’s schools needed to be refurbished”.

“What we have got today, therefore, is some of those schools’ headteachers scrambling around trying to identify bits of concrete which might look like Aero bars when they should be focusing on children learning and developing.”

Daniel Kebede, general secretary for the National Education Union, claimed there would not be any Raac in a single secondary school in England if the programme had continued.

“It has in my opinion been calculated neglect,” he said.

But Cabinet minister Grant Shapps defended the Tories’ record on school building.

“There was a big increase, actually a quarter increase in the 2021 budget on these capital projects for schools,” he told the BBC.

“We’ve done about 500 over the last 10 years, the project has to do another 500.

“That Building Schools for the Future programme… only referred to secondary schools, and secondary schools are the minority of schools.”

Speaking on Times Radio, he said: “We didn’t think it (BSF) was the right programme to take forward, but many of those schools have had other remedial work or building work done in the meantime.

“So I don’t think just sticking to what happened to be a previous policy is the answer to what would have still been a problem today.”

Rishi Sunak will face Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time in seven weeks in a session likely to be dominated by the Raac crisis.

The Prime Minister’s actions as chancellor have already been questioned after one of his ministers suggested Mr Sunak approved funding for 50 schools a year to be rebuilt, rejecting an application for cash for 200 a year.

Sir Keir said: “He took a decision in 2021. I think the least that we’re entitled to is to know what risks were pointed out to him in 2021 when the Prime Minister took those decisions, and an answer from him as to why he didn’t allow that funding to go forward.”

He told BBC Breakfast that Labour would ensure schools are both “open and safe”, but did not provide the details of what any rebuilding or refurbishing programme would look like under his party.

“Obviously, as we did when we were last in government, we will have a programme for schools. We’ll set out what that future programme is as we get towards the election,” he said.

“We would give an assurance that the necessary work would be done.”

Labour will also try to use an arcane parliamentary mechanism to discover what the Prime Minister knew about the crisis during his tenure in the Treasury.

The Prime Minister has rejected the attack on his Treasury record.

"We believe fake expansion, spreadsheet grading, and arrogant elitism will kill the sport."