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Education Secretary defends holidaying in Spain as concrete crisis unfolded

Education Secretary defends holidaying in Spain as concrete crisis unfolded

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has defended holidaying with family in Spain as the crumbling concrete crisis hitting schools unfolded.

The Cabinet minister said on Monday she has “always worked remotely” and continued to chair a response team while on the continent for her father's birthday.

Aides had conceded she was in Spain between August 25 and Thursday, when the closures at more than 100 schools were ordered.

Her holiday emerged as Ms Keegan was under pressure after being caught on microphone suggesting “everyone else has sat on their a*** and done nothing” as she tackled the crisis.

Ministers have said they were acting after receiving concerning new evidence about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) over the summer.

Ms Keegan said the trip to Spain - where she reportedly owns property in Madrid and Marbella - was her first opportunity to go on holiday this summer after dealing with striking teachers, as well as GCSE and A-level results.

She told Sky's Politics Hub: "I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me, I'm certainly not getting that vibe from you.

“But what I arranged was to go on holiday on that day for my dad's birthday - it was a family occasion and we went."

The minister said she chaired a response team from Spain “every day” despite the vacation.

She said she has “always worked remotely” throughout her career, in business before becoming an MP, and said she planned to come back if investigations raised concerns.

“I came back straight away - well actually I had to wait a day because of the air traffic control issue," she added.

She earlier told the Commons a list of the 156 schools with confirmed cases of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) will be published “this week".

Making a statement in the Commons on Monday, Ms Keegan said: “We will publish a list of schools once mitigations are in place.

“It is right that parents are informed by schools if they are impacted and that schools have time to work with their DfE caseworker on those mitigations.

“I'm confirming today that we will publish the list of the 156 schools with confirmed cases of Raac this week, with details of initial mitigations in place.

“After this, we will provide updated information as new cases of Raac are confirmed and existing cases resolved."

More than a hundred schools in England were told they could not fully open just days before the start of the autumn term because of safety fears over the use of Raac.

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) is a lightweight building material used from the 1950s up to the mid-1990s, but is now assessed to be at risk of collapse.

Pupils face being taught in temporary classrooms, on different sites or even forced into pandemic-style remote lessons.

Leaders of a coalition of unions wrote to Ms Keegan on Monday demanding urgent answers on the Raac “emergency”.

School staff are “managing the anxiety” of parents and carers on behalf of government and they have a right to know how this happened, the unions said.

Affected schools in London include Cleeve Park School in Sidcup, St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive in Eltham, Brixton’s Corpus Christi Catholic School, The Ellen Wilkinson School in Ealing, The Link School in Beddington and St Mary Magdalene and St Stephen’s CE Primary School in Westminster.

Ms Keegan said all schools and colleges that suspect they might have Raac will be surveyed “within a matter of weeks, in many cases in a few days”.

“Most … suspected cases will not have Raac,” she added.

The Education Secretary said the Government is taking a “deliberately cautious approach to prioritising children’s safety”.

She also said the Government’s “proactive approach” to assessing Raac in schools, which included a programme of professional surveys begun in September 2022, revealed three cases over the summer “where Raac that would have been graded as non-critical had failed without warning”.

The Prime Minister said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to suggest that he was to blame for failing to fully fund a programme to rebuild England’s schools when he was chancellor.

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson suggested to the Commons that Ms Keegan take responsibility.

“The Education Secretary said this morning that in her view it is not the job of her department to ensure the safety of our children’s schools, that she was doing a good job,” she said.

“Schools are literally at risk of collapse, she is the Education Secretary, whose responsibility does she think it is then?”

Ms Keegan replied: “When I was given new information and had to consider the impacts that this would have on our schools and children, I took action, even though it was politically difficult.”