Crumbling schools crisis is a classic case of putting off until tomorrow what needs doing today - David Behrens

What a shame that after a mostly miserable summer, the sun came out just as the kids went back to school. Except that some of them didn’t go back because their schools are falling down. So they can enjoy a few warm weeks after all. It’s as if it was planned.

But of course it wasn’t because nothing is ever planned in Britain. And in the case of this latest fiasco the man who seems to have planned least is the one moaning the most.

He is Jonathan Slater, the civil servant who led the Department for Education between 2016 and 2020 and who broke cover on Monday to blame Rishi Sunak for not giving his department enough cash to repair the nation’s crumbling schools while Sunak was Chancellor.

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Mr Slater’s line of reasoning seems to be that an all-or-nothing solution was needed to put right all the bad workmanship his department had overseen. If there wasn’t enough money in the pot, the whole project would have to wait until there was.

A general view of Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield, which has been affected by sub-standard reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). PIC: Danny Lawson/PA WireA general view of Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield, which has been affected by sub-standard reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
A general view of Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield, which has been affected by sub-standard reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

It’s like being told that if you can’t afford fillet steak you’ll have to eat nothing at all. Most of us faced with an ultimatum like that would seek a compromise – which in this case might have involved spending whatever was available on incremental repairs that would have kept schools open, with temporary classrooms if necessary.

It’s precisely what the education department is there to do and Mr Slater has yet to explain why a coordinated schedule of works wasn’t put in place years ago.

But he couldn’t, could he? He has it in for the government because three years ago he was sacked by Boris Johnson over another debacle. It happened during the pandemic when, you may recall, thousands of students were denied the exam grades they had worked for because officials had bungled a computerised marking mechanism.

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It was claimed at the time that ministers were throwing civil servants under the bus rather than admit to their own mistakes and Mr Slater is now wreaking revenge. So his comments this week need to be seen in that context.

The enforced closures of three years ago would have been the ideal time to replace the concrete beams that Mr Slater’s team knew perfectly well were rotting away. Instead they waited until one of them finally collapsed.

Had this not happened during the summer holidays we could have been looking at another Aberfan, a disaster caused by another entirely foreseeable danger, namely the presence of a giant colliery slag heap in the shadow of the village school.

There is a tipping point at which building deficiencies become emergencies. You used to be able to buy asbestos garages from the small ads in the back of the Radio Times; now you have to find someone with a special licence to take them away.

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Likewise, lightweight aerated concrete has been the construction industry’s dirty little secret since the 1990s when engineers realised that it was basically a sponge, absorbing the rain and rotting from the inside.

And the fact that the problem was just kicked from one administration to the next does little to instil trust in the system. At the election next year we will be voting for whoever we disbelieve least, and that’s a poor mandate to take to Number 10.

Labour, for its part, has been fanning these flames of distrust with outlandish claims about what the government should or should not have done about education and every other area of policy.

Its latest allegation, that a mental health patient had to wait for 36 days in a Lancashire A&E unit, was a masterpiece of misconstruction that was debunked by a simple fact check. The truth was that the patient arrived, left and came back a month later when he was discharged.

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By implying that he was simply left waiting, Labour was regressing to the tactics of spin doctors like Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s disgraced advisor who was forced out over emails on how to smear David Cameron and his wife with untrue rumours about their private lives.

Keir Starmer cannot claim to have reformed his party when this kind of thing is still happening.

Meanwhile, what will children do on their unplanned Indian summer? They can’t go for a swim because it turns out the water companies are filling seas and rivers with sewage even in nice weather. So they will have to study at home as they did three years ago when someone screwed up their exam results.

That’s not progress and everyone involved, including the self-righteous Jonathan Slater, should be made to stay behind in a crumbling classroom and write 100 times: “I must not put off until tomorrow what needs doing today”.