With only days to the start of the school term, on 30 August 2023 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that 147 schools and colleges faced partial or full closure because of the potential danger of structural collapse due to the presence of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). On 19 September, a further 27 schools were added to the list, taking the total to 174. Of these 174 schools, 12 are located in the North West:
- Canon Slade School in Bolton
- Cockermouth School in Cockermouth, Cumbria
- Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston, Lancashire
- St Bernard’s RC Primary School in Bolton
- St William of York Catholic Primary School in Bolton
- Bispham Endowed Church of England Primary School in Blackpool, Lancashire
- Marple Sixth Form College in Trafford
- St William of York Catholic Primary School in Bolton
- St Andrew’s CofE Primary School, Over Hulton in Bolton
- Royal College Manchester in Stockport
- Sandbach School in Cheshire
- The Macclesfield Academy in Cheshire
A further three schools have been identified by the Manchester Evening News:
- Altrincham College in Trafford,
- All Saints CofE Primary School in Newton Heath, Manchester
- Sale Grammar School in Trafford
While the DfE is footing the bill for remediation works and temporary accommodation, it is the schools who are left to pick up the pieces of the impact on learning and teaching.
What is RAAC and why is it important?
RAAC was used in the construction of school buildings between 1950 and the mid-1990s. It is a lightweight, bubbly form of concrete commonly used, mainly in roofs but also in walls and floors.
It has raised several concerns due to health and safety and structural issues. RAAC may deteriorate over time, especially in older buildings. This deterioration can be caused by exposure to the elements, water ingress and long-term wear and tear.
As RAAC deteriorates, it may release harmful substances and fibres. This poses a health risk to both staff and students, particularly if they inhale or come into contact with them. Parents are understandably concerned for the safety and health of their children, and the disruption to their progress and routines if their children’s school needs to close.
RAAC is considered less durable than reinforced concrete. As it degrades, it can compromise the structural integrity of school buildings, potentially leading to unsafe conditions. Cracks, weakening of walls, and ceiling collapses are all possible outcomes. In 2018, a roof made of RAAC at Singlewell Primary School in Kent suddenly collapsed. Mercifully, the collapse occurred during a weekend and no one was hurt.
In cases where RAAC is found to be a significant safety concern, schools may be forced to close their buildings for repairs or renovations. This not only presents considerable management challenges in re-locating classrooms to other buildings or temporary portakabins, but can also affect the learning process for students – something that has already been massively disrupted by Covid.
Identifying RAAC-containing structures, assessing their condition, and implementing necessary safety measures, including replacing RAAC with safer alternatives, is a complex and costly process.
In September, the DfE asked headteachers to inform them if their schools contained RAAC. But only a structural engineer can identify with certainty whether RAAC is present – a visual inspection is inadequate. There was simply insufficient time for headteachers to commission a structural engineer to confirm the presence – or absence – of RAAC before the start of the new school year.
How did we get here?
In the 2000s, the Labour Government invested in a secondary school building programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). Around half of the work was procured under the private finance initiative (PFI). In 2007, a capital programme worth £1.9bn was announced to fund building projects for primary schools. By December 2009, 96 local authorities had joined the programme.
In 2010, in the early stages of the coalition government’s austerity programme, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove announced that BSF was to be cancelled, calling it “bureaucratic and wasteful”. Projects which had not achieved the status of ‘financial close’ – meaning that the Government would not have a clear picture of its financial position – would not proceed, meaning that 715 school revamps already agreed by the scheme would not go ahead. Years later, Gove stated that cancelling BSF was his biggest mistake in office.
Michael Gove has previously suggested that he might have handled [Labour’s school rebuilding programme] better. The move was the first sign of the neglect that was to come. Ministers have known about these risks for years but did nothing.
“Labour has pressed the government month in and month out on the safety of our schools, of the students and staff who learn and work in them. Their response? Month after month of inaction, evasion, and complacency. Ministers should hang their heads in shame.Bridget Phillipson (shadow education minister)
Four of these schools with RAAC also had work under BSF scrapped. At least 19 schools that had rebuilds cancelled by Michael Gove have RAAC.
There was a successor to the BFS between 2014 and 2021 – the Priority School Building Programme (2014-21) – under which the Government stated that it would provide capital grants for the replacement or repair of over 500 schools. Applications were sought in 2021 and were received from over 1,100 schools. However, almost 800 were rejected, including ten now identified as having RAAC.
Some schools were chosen based on their condition before the nomination process, meaning 400 of the 500 schools set for rebuilds were named. But just four have been built so far, with hundreds of schools still awaiting new buildings. In May 2022, the civil service warned the Government that many school buildings were in such a state of disrepair that they posed a ‘threat to life’.
We are in the worst crisis in retention and recruitment in England that the education service has ever faced. The majority of headteachers and teachers are leaving because of burnout, caused by stress and work overload.
The very last thing that they needed was to have to pick up the pieces of failed government policies to make our schools safe.