Gillian Keegan made the claim about “high-quality” portable cabins as she updated MPs in the Commons on how the Government is handling the presence of collapse-risk reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in schools.
The latest Department for Education (DfE) figures show that an additional 27 schools and colleges in England have been identified as having Raac on site.
Around 115,000 pupils – based on the latest available school census data – are being educated across all the schools listed as being affected by Raac.
Nearly 250 temporary classrooms have been ordered by at least 29 schools in response to the Raac crisis – and 11 of those schools already have temporary classrooms in place, the DfE’s top official told MPs on Tuesday.
In response to a question on the provision of temporary classrooms as a result of the Raac crisis, Ms Keegan told the Commons: “I have been to a number of these schools and seen children and met children in the Portakabins, and in fact at the first school I went to the children were all petitioning me to stay in the Portakabin because they actually preferred it to the classroom.
“The Portakabins are very high quality and I would advise her to go and see some of the high-quality Portakabins that we have, and that is true.”
Scores of schools and colleges in England were told by the Government to fully or partly close their buildings just days before the start of the autumn term amid concerns about collapse-prone Raac.
Ms Keegan has once again defended holidaying in Spain as the crumbling concrete crisis hitting schools unfolded as she said she went abroad at the end of August “because that was the first time” she could go.
The updated DfE list suggests 24 education settings – as of Thursday last week – are offering some remote learning because Raac was found.
One secondary school in east London – Stepney All Saints Church of England Secondary School – has had to switch to remote learning for all students because of Raac, according to the DfE list.
An additional 23 schools are providing a mix of face-to-face lessons and remote learning to pupils as Raac is present in their buildings.
A spokesperson for Stepney All Saints Church of England Secondary School in Tower Hamlets told the PA news agency that they are still waiting for official guidance from the DfE, with no time frame given for an answer.
On Tuesday, school system minister Baroness Barran and the DfE’s top official, permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood, were questioned by MPs on the Education Select Committee.
Ms Acland-Hood could not say how many temporary classrooms, which have been provided by both the department and local responsible bodies, are being used at the affected schools.
But she told the MPs that a total of 248 mobile classrooms have been ordered in response to the situation, as well as toilets – and 11 schools are already operating with temporary classrooms.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The Education Secretary should be reflecting on why children prefer temporary accommodation. Much of the school estate is outdated and should have been refurbished or rebuilt many years ago.”
She added: “Temporary accommodation is just that – temporary. Children should be learning in classrooms which are modern, in good repair and permanent.”
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the Raac crisis has been a “colossal shambles” as she called on Ms Keegan to take responsibility for “three weeks of chaos”.
Addressing Ms Keegan in the Commons, the Labour frontbencher said: “Parents, families, staff, and above all, our children, deserve answers, and they deserve better from this government and better than this Secretary of State.”
Propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option in the medium or long term
Paul Whiteman, NAHT
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “That pupils prefer temporary Portakabins to their previous classrooms says an awful lot about how far government’s neglect of the school estate has let things deteriorate.”
He added: “We still need a real sense of a clear plan, not just to put short-term mitigation measures in place, but to properly repair or replace buildings so they are fit for purpose.
“Propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option in the medium or long term.”
The DfE said 148 of the 174 education settings confirmed to have collapse-risk concrete are now offering full-time, face-to-face learning to all pupils.
Last year, the DfE issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies for all schools in England to ask them to identify whether they suspected they had Raac.
Responsible bodies have submitted responses to the questionnaire for 98.6% of schools with blocks built in the target era, the DfE has confirmed.
Baroness Barran was questioned by MPs on Tuesday about the short notice that schools were given about potential closures due to Raac.
She said advice went to Ms Keegan on August 21 following two incidents where Raac – which would have previously been graded as non-critical – failed.
Just “two or three days later”, the DfE became aware of a third incident where Raac panels failed at a school in England, the minister told MPs.
Baroness Barran said: “We couldn’t have acted quicker. Because clearly the advice we received went through a range of options from immediate closure to staged closure and a kind of warning period. And as ministers, our advice to the Secretary of State was that we should take the most cautious route.”