Crumbling comms and concrete chaos: How the Government is handling the schools crisis

This is normally the time of year when schools grab the headlines with robust enforcement of uniform policies.

But whether a pupil’s holiday haircut is appropriate for the classroom or someone is wearing the wrong colour socks is the least of the worries at the start of this new academic year.

This year, the return to school has been hit by fears classrooms could collapse.

Just days before the start of term, we learnt last week that more than 100 schools had been told to shut buildings made with a type of ‘light’ concrete.

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is around a quarter of the weight of normal concrete and was often used in flat roofs in public buildings.

But the material, which is bubbly like an Aero chocolate bar, doesn’t stand the test of time.

And that has plunged the return to school into chaos and uncertainty.

But why were the risks posed by this crumbling concrete suddenly announced just before the start of the new school year – arguably the most disruptive possible time?

During our crisis communication training courses, we talk about organisations identifying risks, using a risk register to monitor them, and then incorporating them into crisis planning - the potential causes of a crisis can often be identified.

And this was one of those crises almost everyone could see coming. Concerns about the presence of RAAC were first raised in the mid-1990s.

Since then, there have been a succession of warnings, including a school roof collapsing and a Civil Service report last year stating some buildings were a “threat to life”.

Even in June, the Department of Education identified almost 600 schools that may contain the material.

So, why was this crisis allowed to become so last minute?

Was it hoped this can from the 1990s could be kicked just a little further down the road?

The crisis comms around this have not been good. It is not clear exactly what triggered the last- minute panic.

Education Minister Nick Gibb said in an interview with Good Morning Britain that several instances had occurred “over the summer”, including a beam collapsing on school premises.

But we don’t know when in the summer that happened. It has all been pretty vague.

Even finding out what schools are impacted has been strangely shrouded in mystery. The Department for Education has refused to publish a list, saying it will leave it to headteachers to inform parents.

This feels like getting others to break your bad news and take the brunt of the anger.

And it resulted in the media developing their own lists by speaking to schools. Additionally, local authorities, like the one where I live, have had to put out social media posts about whether schools in the area are impacted.

During our crisis communication training, we discuss the importance of visible leadership. So, what have those in charge been saying?

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, gave a pooled interview last Thursday where the breezy message seemed to be "If you don't hear, don't worry" – an approach unlikely to provide much reassurance for concerned parents. And arguably it was an attempt to play down the crisis. 

Despite the crisis dominating the media over the weekend, Ms Keegan did not do any more interviews.

But the Department of Education did release a YouTube video where she answered questions about Raac, which bizarrely had dance music in the background – an interesting crisis communication approach, albeit not one I would rush to recommend.

Her media unavailability saw a narrative develop that she was “dodging” interviews about the crisis. And she is now firmly in the firing line, with the media reporting on a £34 million revamp of her offices while the country’s schools crumble.

But she did face the media on Monday. Speaking on Sky News, a little more detail emerged around the timing of the announcement.

“What happened over the summer is we had three cases - some in schools, some not in schools - and I sent structural engineers out to see them, somewhere in commercial settings, and some in different jurisdictions,” she said.

“And when they went out to see them, they thought there'd been a failure, but it was in a non-critical setting. So that was new evidence and new information.

“'So, I decided to take a very cautious approach.”

During the broadcast media rounds, Ms Keegan said more surveying, portable accommodation companies and propping companies had been brought in to deal with the crisis. So, some signs of action, at least, to try to speed up a crisis that is likely to run and run.

But there has been little in the way of reassurance for parents or compassion for those impacted – closing schools doesn’t just affect children. There are knock-on implications around childcare, home working and getting into the office.

And she broke a golden media training rule, suffering a ‘hot mic’ moment at the end of an ITV interview. While the camera was repositioned for additional shots, the politician could be heard saying: “Does anyone ever say, ‘you’ve done a fu**ing good job because everyone else has been sat on their arse and done nothing?’”

Seeking praise when infrastructure is collapsing around you could be deemed a little optimistic. It would be interesting to know how many stressed parents think she has done a ‘good job’.

There have also been mixed messages about how repairs will be funded. During an interview on Sunday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said: “We will spend what it takes to make sure children can go to school safely.” But Treasury sources quickly briefed any such funding would come from the Department for Education’s existing budget for buildings.

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This crisis communication around this issue will have to improve. It is a crisis that seems set to run.

The government needs to get in front of it quickly. There needs to be greater transparency about the scale of the problem, not just with schools but other public buildings.

It needs detail, a timeline of how long the disruption will last and what is being done to keep it to a minimum.

And it needs to explain in more detail how risks that were known for years were allowed to become a last-minute crisis.

Such is the scale of the problem, there is an argument the crisis response should be led by the Prime Minister – he spoke about if for the first time yesterday (4/9).

But amid his stacked in-tray of problems are claims he refused to properly fund a school rebuilding programme when he was chancellor, despite officials presenting evidence there was “a critical risk to life” from crumbling concrete panels.

The traditional September stories of strict headteachers and uniform crackdowns suddenly don’t sound so bad after all.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our  crisis communication training courses.

 

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