School classrooms in England forced to close if they were made with certain type of concrete prone to collapsing

31 August 2023, 15:08 | Updated: 7 September 2023, 11:41

More than 100 schools have been contacted by the government (stock images)
More than 100 schools have been contacted by the government (stock images). Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

School buildings in England are being forced to close if they were made with concrete prone to collapsing.

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More than 100 schools are confirmed to have been contacted so far ahead of the new academic year.

The government has been aware of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in schools since 1994, and has been discussing the risks with schools since 2018.

Some 24 schools have teaching facilities that are made with RAAC, and in most instances, it is just a classroom or outbuilding impacted.

Each school has been assigned a caseworker to put mitigations in place. They will include options such as propping up ceilings in buildings made with RAAC.

It is possible home-schooling may need to be considered but few will be impacted to such an extent.

The guidance does not cover independent schools, out of school settings, maintained nurseries or independent training providers.

The full list of schools affected has not been released.

It comes after a June report found that risk of injury or death from a school building collapse was "very likely and critical".

However, the Department for Education (DfE) has not given a timeline for replacing the RAAC.

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A DfE spokesperson said on Wednesday: “We have been engaging with schools and responsible bodies about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018 and subsequently published guidance on identifying and managing it."

Labour said the announcement was "absolutely shocking", coming not long before the start of the school year.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: "But [ministers] are still not being upfront about it. They should publish that full list, come clean to parents and make sure that all of our children can avoid this kind of disruption".

Lib Dem Education Spokesperson Munira Wilson MP said: "This shocking admission is a concrete result of years of Conservative neglect of our school buildings. 

"Parents, teachers and pupils will be horrified that children have been taught in unsafe buildings and cannot return to school next week. Instead pupils face more misery learning in temporary classrooms or being bussed miles to local schools. 

"Pupil safety is paramount but for this to come out just days before term starts is totally unacceptable. 

"Liberal Democrats would invest in our schools urgently to remove RAAC where it is a risk to life and clear the backlog of school repairs."

Unison head of education Mike Short said: “This situation is nothing short of a scandal.

“The DfE and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings.

“The schools minister even broke his own promise to publish information about at-risk properties before parliament’s summer recess.

“Parents, pupils and staff will be relieved the issue is finally being taken seriously. But to wait until the eleventh hour as schools are preparing for a new academic year will create turmoil for thousands of families. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg."

The teaching union NASUWT said that the news was the result of "more than a decade of wilful under-investment" in schools.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the union, said: "Although we welcome that the DfE has finally taken action to safeguard pupils and teachers, it would appear that mere luck rather than judgment has prevented a major disaster from occurring."

He added: "Whilst we believe that today's decision is the right one in the circumstances, it will raise questions about the safety of other schools, the time it will take to complete detailed surveys of all schools at risk of RAAC, and whether the Government could and should have done more to prevent this situation arising in the first place.

"Pupils returning to schools next week should be brimming with optimism not uncertainty about their futures. Children and young people should not be facing the prospect of having their education disrupted as a result of lack of investment and foresight from the Government.

"It is a disgrace that, despite Ministers' promises to the contrary, there are any schools in such poor condition and state of repair and in danger of collapse."

The local government association, which represents the 317 local authorities in England, criticised the timing of the announcement, close to the start of the school year.

The LGA's Kevin Bentley said: "Leaving this announcement until near the end of the summer holidays, rather than at the beginning, has left schools and councils with very little time to make urgent rearrangements and minimise disruption to classroom learning.

"The Government also needs to provide councils with financial support where they are supporting other schools, such as academies and faith schools, which have had to close buildings due to the presence of RAAC.

"This includes our call for a single, local funding pot to replace the existing fragmented system for school capital projects and for this to sit with councils, who should have the power to determine how and where this is best spent in their local areas."

Meanwhile the Children's Commissioner said that communication was key.

Dame Rachel de Souza said that "children's safety is of course paramount, adding that "it is right that everything is done to make sure schools are safe places for children to learn and play."

Shel said: "After years of disruption for children and young people, what they need most is stability and getting back to normal. We must learn lessons from the pandemic, and we need to see proper communication to children and families affected by this guidance.

"There also needs to be clear direction as to where children should go at the start of the new term and reassure them that places are safe and suitable. An assessment must be made of other settings where children are, and guidance provided as soon as possible.

"Everything must now be done to ensure the impact on children's learning is minimised. And it is particularly important that everyone working with children prioritises those who are vulnerable and those with additional needs."

Meanwhile, hospitals with RAAC will not be vacated, with them instead continuing to monitor and mitigate as they have been doing.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS has a mitigation plan in place for hospital buildings with confirmed RAAC, backed with significant additional funding of £698 million from 2021 to 2025, for trusts to put in place necessary remediation and failsafe measures.

"We remain committed to eradicating RAAC from the NHS estate entirely by 2035.

"Additionally, we have announced that the seven most affected NHS hospitals will be replaced by 2030 through our New Hospital Programme.

"The technical advice received from the NHS is that the current approach to monitoring and mitigation remains appropriate."

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