School staff are frantically trying to deal with the crumbling concrete crisis – but the majority of civil servants tasked with overseeing it seemed to stay away from their offices yesterday.
The Daily Express monitored staff members entering the Department for Education building in central London between 8am and 11am.
Our team counted 209 DfE employees entering the premises on Great Smith Street, Westminster.
That works out to just 19 percent of the capacity with an estimated 1,100 desk spaces available in the building, according to Schools Week.
It comes as an estimated 24 schools have been forced to close because of the presence of the crumbling RAAC concrete ahead of the new term.
Some 156 schools in England have been affected in total – with 104 requiring urgent action and 56 having already undergone repair work.
READ MORE: RAAC scandal deepens with scores of NHS hospitals declared ‘ticking time bombs’
Our investigation adds to concerns that civil servants across Whitehall departments are increasingly working from home on Mondays and Fridays.
Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, who last year slammed staff for not being in the office by leaving “condescending” notes on desks and taking a photo of empty workstations, said: “Friday is a working day and this implies people think it is part of the weekend.
“Working from home should be a privilege when you are on top of the job. If you are manifestly failing to do your job, you should not be allowed to work from home.”
Our team also did not see Education Secretary Gillian Keegan arriving at the Sanctuary Buildings yesterday.
The low attendance at a critical time risks being further proof that civil servants are continuing to ignore calls to return to their desks.
According to official government statistics, the DfE’s London hub was half-empty, at 51 percent, in the last two weeks of August – a drop of 5 percent from the week before.
And across all government departments, attendance remains low – at around 50 percent. None had more than two-thirds of staff at their desks.
Local cafe owners – who before the pandemic were packed out with office workers at lunchtime – now close early. Kaapila Hallikarachchige, the manager of Cafe Nuvo in Westminster, shuts at 2pm every day due to civil servants choosing to work from home most of the time.
He said: “When everyone returned to work after the pandemic, we were busy once again and business was good. We were open all day, every day and particularly busy at lunchtime.
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“But now, we’re lucky if we get a handful of customers a day. It’s killing us. I fear what the future holds, we’ve been here for 24 years and if we had to close it would break my heart.”
Hernan Sanchez, who opened the Express Coffee Co eatery around the corner from the DfE in 2000, said he has seen a 40 percent drop in customers in the last couple of years.
The business owner says he has had to cut staffing levels and turn off appliances where he can to save cash.
He said: “It’s not like it used to be and that’s been hard on us.”
No 10 said: “The Prime Minister’s view is that in-office working is vital, that unless there are proper exceptions, people should be in the office working to help the public.
“There are teams in the DfE working around the clock to provide reassurance to parents, to get data out and to contact schools that have not yet responded to surveys. But we know there is more to do to encourage people back into the office.”
The DfE was also contacted for comment.
Downing Street is poised to issue new guidance to all Whitehall departments in a bid to end the culture of “Tuesday to Thursday” working which has developed since the pandemic.
Meanwhile, schools that missed yesterday’s deadline to return a survey about potentially crumbling concrete will not be named and shamed.
The DfE backed down after a backlash – with claims many had already returned the forms months ago.
Geoff Barton, of The Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Government handling of the RAAC crisis has been utterly shambolic.”
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