STEPHEN GLOVER: Hysteria over the Tories and Great Concrete Crisis is unfair

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STEPHEN GLOVER: Hysteria over the Tories and Great Concrete Crisis is unfair

Bear-baiting, which was once practically a national pastime, was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1835. But the sport of Tory-baiting endures, and i

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Bear-baiting, which was once practically a national pastime, was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1835. But the sport of Tory-baiting endures, and is at present enjoying an extraordinary resurgence.

I should admit that I have from time to time dabbled in the sport with considerable pleasure. I took it quite seriously before the Conservatives were borne away in the 1997 election, and have periodically returned to it with gusto.

But when most of the media and all opposition parties are in full cry, and when a government minister can’t appear in a broadcasting studio without being treated as a criminal, the time has surely come to take stock. I don’t say Tory-baiting should be banned, but perhaps it should at least be restricted to the winter months.

I’m speaking of the current hysteria about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in our schools and other public buildings. It’s obviously a serious issue. But is it really proof of unprecedented moral turpitude and incompetence on the part of this Government, and yet another egregious example of ‘Broken Britain’?

So far — thank God — no one has died or suffered even a minor injury. I believe a couple of school roofs have collapsed, one in 2018 and another this summer. Ministers appear, at last, to be getting to grips with the problem.

Park View School in Haringey, North, London, is among those affected by the Raac chaos

Park View School in Haringey, North, London, is among those affected by the Raac chaos

 Park View School in Haringey, North, London, is among those affected by the Raac chaos

On the subject of Mrs Keegan (pictured), I’m far from her biggest fan. Her foul-mouthed outburst on Monday was an awful example, though she didn’t know she was being recorded by ITV News

On the subject of Mrs Keegan (pictured), I’m far from her biggest fan. Her foul-mouthed outburst on Monday was an awful example, though she didn’t know she was being recorded by ITV News

On the subject of Mrs Keegan (pictured), I’m far from her biggest fan. Her foul-mouthed outburst on Monday was an awful example, though she didn’t know she was being recorded by ITV News

Yet during a ponderously scripted performance at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer conjured up a Dickensian image of children in schools ‘cowering under steel supports’. Come off it!

As for the Labour leader’s comparison of Rishi Sunak and the Government to ‘cowboy builders’, that is wildly over the top, and not even funny.

Nor did trade unionist Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders pull his punches on yesterday’s Today programme on Radio 4. He reckoned the Great Concrete Crisis ‘reinforces a sense we’ve got a government that frankly doesn’t care, and hasn’t cared, about education for many years’. That’s nonsense.

Not wishing to be outdone in the anti-Tory festivities, the BBC yesterday released the latest findings of ‘BBC Verify’, a pompously styled new outfit whose name suggests that it towers above ordinary, fallible journalists, who may not bother to check their facts.

BBC Verify itself needs verifying, or at any rate putting in context. Yesterday, it declared that 17 schools with RAAC problems had been on Labour’s list for rebuilding that was cancelled by the Tory-led coalition in 2010.

Yes, but the implied assumption — that Labour would have rebuilt all these schools had it won the 2010 election — is probably wrong. It would have been constrained by the same financial realities that afflicted the coalition. Labour’s outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury famously left a letter saying: ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’

Sir Keir played the same misleading game during PMQs, tediously intoning the names of school after school that were on Labour’s list for rebuilding and now have RAAC problems. But anyone can draw up a ‘to do’ list. That’s all it was. A list.

Am I being hopelessly naive in calling for some balance and proportion in the RAAC debate — or is the narrative of Tory stinginess and incompetence so powerful that we might as well sit back and watch the exaggerations multiply?

Here are a few facts, though unlike the BBC I don’t claim omniscience. There are more than 22,000 schools in England. The Government yesterday finally produced a list of 147 schools with concrete that could crumble. That is significantly less than 1 per cent.

Needless to say, I don’t at all dispute the inconvenience to children in these schools, and other schools that may be affected by RAAC. Parents are justifiably cross and upset. But it’s not a national disaster.

'The Tories are not always incompetent and feckless and nasty' (Stock image)

'The Tories are not always incompetent and feckless and nasty' (Stock image)

‘The Tories are not always incompetent and feckless and nasty’ (Stock image) 

Could the Government have acted earlier? Probably. After the collapse of a roof in a primary school in Kent in 2018, it took until March 2022 for a questionnaire to be sent to schools.

Whitehall moves far too slowly, and it hasn’t helped that last year there were five Education Secretaries. Some schools have also dawdled. According to Gillian Keegan, the present Education Secretary, 5 per cent of them have still not responded to the questionnaire.

On the subject of Mrs Keegan, I’m far from her biggest fan. Her foul-mouthed outburst on Monday was an awful example, though she didn’t know she was being recorded by ITV News.

But irritating though it has been for children and parents to learn about dodgy concrete at the start of a new school year, she surely had no alternative. Imagine if she had said nothing, and a ceiling had caved in, causing injury or even death. She and Mr Sunak knew there would be a political price to pay and they did the right thing.

Another charge against the Tories is that, in the words of Gareth Davies, the supposedly neutral head of the National Audit Office, they have adopted a ‘sticking-plaster approach’ to essential maintenance. They should have spent more money refurbishing and rebuilding schools over the past 13 years.

Well, maybe. It’s true that capital spending on schools has fallen throughout the period of Tory rule, though it is now growing. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the three-year average up to 2023–24 is about 26 per cent lower in real terms than the three-year average up to 2008–09.

All one can say is that taxation and government spending both stand at record levels in peacetime. We still have a huge deficit. There isn’t a pot of money into which the Government can dip to build lots of new schools.

So far as spending per pupil in England is concerned, according to the IFS, this is about to return to 2010 levels in real terms, having suffered a decline during the years of austerity.

What’s not true is the assertion of trade unionists such as Geoff Barton that the Tories don’t care about education. Over the past 13 years they have successfully promoted many more self-governing free schools in England.

This may explain why the UN Programme for International Student Assessment comparisons for England in 2018 (2022 results are due later this year) showed a significant improvement compared with 2015. Figures for the other home nations, where education is devolved, were not so rosy.

England’s mean score for reading skills was similar to Scotland and Northern Ireland and all three fared significantly better than Labour-run Wales. In both science and mathematics, the mean scores for England were higher than for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Not so bad, then. In fact, somewhat encouraging.

We can claim like Sir Keir Starmer that pupils are cowering under steel supports, and allege like Geoff Barton that the Tories couldn’t give a fig about education. We can pretend RAAC in schools constitutes a national crisis, and forget that defective concrete found its way into schools, hospitals, prisons and courts under Labour governments as well as Conservative ones.

Or we can accept the truth — the Tories are not always incompetent and feckless and nasty. They can even get some things right. But that isn’t the judgment of the media that sometimes resemble a mob.

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