With just a few days to go before the start of the academic year, more than 100 schools in England have been told to shut buildings made with a certain type of concrete unless they put in place safety measures.
The Government has ordered 104 English schools, nurseries and colleges with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) to close affected buildings immediately until safety measures, such as propping up ceilings, are introduced. This is because there are concerns that RAAC is prone to collapse. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the decision followed “new evidence” about the material, and that the government is taking a “cautious approach. Engineers have been combing school sites looking for RAAC and over the summer. A couple of cases have given us cause for concern” she said.
What is RAAC?
The material at the centre of all this is a lightweight concrete that was used in roofs, floors and walls between the 1950s and 1990s. It is a cheaper alternative to standard concrete and because it’s aerated, or “bubbly”, it’s less durable with a limited lifespan of around 30 years, and the structural behaviour differs significantly from traditional reinforced concrete.
According to Loughborough University, there are tens of thousands of these structural panels already in use and “many are showing signs of wear and tear and deterioration”. The Health and Safety Executive says RAAC is now beyond its lifespan and may “collapse with little or no notice”. In a statement on Thursday, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) noted that “Although called ‘concrete’, RAAC is very different from traditional concrete and, because of the way in which it was made, much weaker.”
There are 156 educational settings in England with confirmed RAAC since 2022, according to Department for Education (DfE) data. Of those, 52 were deemed critical – meaning they could have collapsed – and action was taken immediately to add safety mitigations. The other 104 were deemed non-critical but on Thursday the guidance was changed that those areas should be vacated unless mitigations were put in place.
The DfE has issued updated guidance for schools with confirmed RAAC in their buildings, stating they should find emergency or temporary accommodation for the “first few weeks” of the term, until buildings are made safe with structural supports. It recommends finding space in nearby schools or community centres, or an “empty local office building”. Remote education, popularised during the pandemic, should only be considered as a “last resort and for a short period”, the guidance states.
Unions and opposition parties are saying the government should have acted sooner. The National Association of Headteachers said the timing could not be worse, with children due to return from summer holidays next week, and thousands of pupils now facing disruption.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents mostly head teachers also said the Government had “failed to invest sufficiently in the school estate” and called the announcement a “scramble”. She said it was “clearly vital”, but “the actions these schools will need to take will be hugely disruptive, and this will obviously be worrying for pupils, families and staff”.
“The Government should have put in place a programme to identify and remediate this risk at a much earlier stage,” she added.
Moreover, the Government has not provided clarity on when a list of affected schools will be published, drawing criticism from the Labour Party. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson, urged ministers to “come clean with parents and set out the full scale of the challenge that we’re facing”.
Philipson also took to X, stating “Children sat underneath steel girders to protect them from the ceiling falling in: the defining image of thirteen years of a Conservative-run education system. You can’t give children a first class education in second rate buildings.”
Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Munira Wilson said “pupil safety is paramount but for this to come out just days before term starts is totally unacceptable”.
Additionally, The Local Government Association (LGA) said it had been warning about the risk of RAAC since 2018. “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,” said Cllr Kevin Bentley, its senior vice-chairman.
Until now, schools with confirmed RAAC were being told to get plans in place just in case buildings had to be evacuated. Now schools are being told they can’t use affected buildings at all unless safety measures are installed. This is understandably causing confusion and fear among parents, staff and students.
However, it is important to remember that while there will be some disruption, there are more than 20,000 schools, colleges and nurseries in England. Thursday’s announcement won’t make any difference to the vast majority of schools preparing for the start of term. Schools are also being encouraged to fill out the DfE’s questionnaire so officials can help schools manage if RAAC is found.