The UK government has ordered over 156 schools to close facilities due to the presence a dangerous type of concrete as the new school year begins.
The new school year is beginning, but many students in England will not return to their classrooms after the Department of Education (DfE) ordered more than 100 schools to shut some of their buildings, citing the risks of crumbling concrete.
The reason for the measure was the detection of dangerous levels of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), a material described as “80 per cent air” and “like an Aero Bar”, which could cause buildings to collapse. The material was widely used in roofs, floors and walls between the 1950s and 1990s.
The list of affected schools containing RAAC has reached 156; 104 of these require urgent action, the government said, while 52 have already received repair works. However, this number could rise as survey work continues. So far, an estimated 24 schools have been completely shut.
Affected students will be relocated to new wings and classrooms or asked to begin the school year remotely, in a situation mirroring that of Covid-related lockdowns. Addressing the backlash, the DfE confirmed that the government will cover the cost of temporary and emergency accommodation.
“The first thing we’ll do is we’ll identify where the RAAC is, so some children will be moved to a different part of the building, some of the buildings will be propped up, so the roofs will be propped up, some of them will be having temporary classrooms,” said education secretary Gillian Keegan.
The sudden change in DfE guidance has been caused by three specific cases occurring over the summer, in which RAAC concrete graded low-risk was found to be unsafe, the BBC has reported.
Keegan said the decision followed “new evidence” about the material, explaining that, over the summer, “a couple of cases have given us cause for concern”.
She also aimed to ease parents’ concerns: “That’s a very cautious approach, so parents can be confident that if they’ve not been contacted by their school it is safe to send children back into school.”
The Association of School and College Leaders said the rush to establish contingency plans in case buildings collapse was “symptomatic of the government’s neglect of the school estate”.
The risks of RAAC were first revealed following a sudden roof collapse at a primary school in Essex in 2018. A total of 20 hospitals at 18 NHS trusts around the UK have also been identified as including the material.
The Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) has stressed that RAAC is “very different from traditional concrete and, because of the way in which it was made, much weaker.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the union had repeatedly raised concerns about the dangers of RAAC.
“While this news is shocking, sadly it is not hugely surprising,” he added. “The government is right to put the safety of pupils and staff first [but] … the timing of this couldn’t be worse, with children due to return from the summer holidays next week. This will put school leaders under tremendous pressure as they have to scramble to organise alternative accommodation.”
Unison, the union that represents more than 200,000 non-academic school staff, called the situation “nothing short of a scandal”.
Although only 156 schools have so far been affected, a report by the National Audit Office published in June said that as many as 572 schools could contain RAAC.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the situation is a “staggering display of Tory incompetence” and urged ministers to “come clean with parents and set out the full scale of the challenge that we’re facing”.
At the time of writing, the government has not released the full list of affected schools.
Schools have long demanded support to rebuild some of their facilities. In 2010 the then education secretary Michael Gove scrapped Building Schools for the Future, a £55bn building programme.
Affected NHS trusts should have access to the necessary funding to replace concrete that has been deemed unsafe “as soon as possible”, a health chief has said.
Last year, E&T dedicated a magazine issue to the science behind concrete.
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