What we know so far about school building closures

Elementary school teacher with classimage source, Getty Images

With just days left before the start of the new school year, more than 100 schools in England have been asked to close buildings made of a certain type of concrete unless safety measures are taken. This is what we know so far.

Why do school buildings close?

The government has ordered 104 English schools, nurseries and colleges using Reinforced Aerated Concrete (RAAC) to immediately close affected buildings until safety measures, such as roofing props, are in place.

This is because there are concerns that the RAAC is liable to collapse.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan says the decision follows “new evidence” about the substance, and that the government is taking a “cautious approach”.

She said engineers combed school sites for RAAC and, over the summer, “a few cases raised our concern”.

Trade unions and opposition parties say the government should have acted sooner.

Head teachers union NAHT says the timing could not be worse, with children due to return from summer break next week and thousands of pupils now facing disruption.

What is RAAC?

The main material in all of this is lightweight concrete that was used for roofs, floors and walls between the 1950s and 1990s.

It is a cheaper alternative to standard concrete and because it is aerated or “bubbly”, it is less durable with a limited life of about 30 years, and the structural behavior differs significantly from conventional reinforced concrete.

According to Loughborough University, tens of thousands of these structural panels are already in use and “many show signs of wear and tear”.

The Executive Director of Health and Safety says the RAAC is now well past its lifespan and may “collapse with little or no notice”.

In a statement released Thursday, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) noted: “Despite its name as concrete, RAAC is very different from conventional concrete and, because of the way it is manufactured, is much weaker.”

How many schools affected?

There are 156 settings in England for which RAAC is confirmed, according to data from the Department for Education (DfE). Of those, 52 already had safety mitigations in place, and 104 of them were contacted this week about implementing them.

But more schools may be affected. Last June, a report by the National Audit Office assessed that 572 schools had been identified where the RAAC might exist.

Engineers conduct surveys to locate problems.

It is important to remember that although there is some disruption, there are over 20,000 schools, colleges and nurseries in England. Today’s announcement will make no difference to the vast majority of schools preparing for the start of the term.

What schools are affected?

On Thursday, Ms Keegan said the government would publish a list of affected schools, but did not say when. The Labor Party has called for the full list.

So far, the BBC has collected evidence that the following schools have been affected:

  • Ferryhill School, a secondary school in County Durham, said in an email to parents, seen by the BBC, that the start of the new school year would be postponed. She said new beginners will start a week late while the rest is taught online. One parent told the BBC that his seven-year-old daughter was apprehensive about going to school, and this put her in a “difficult situation”.
  • Willowbrook Mead Primary Academy, Leicester – Parents have been told in a letter from the school, seen by the BBC, about the complex arrangements for sending children from different study groups to two different schools and for older children to be homeschooled
  • Corpus Christi Catholic Primary School, Brixton, South London – A statement issued on 18 August says youngsters will be transferred to a nearby school
  • Crossflats Primary School, Bradford – Partial closure of the school has been confirmed by Bradford Council. Temporary buildings do exist
  • Eldwick Primary School, Bradford – Bradford Council have also confirmed that some buildings are closed

Why is the government acting now?

The government said in a statement that it has known since 1994 that some public sector buildings contain RAAC, and has been monitoring their condition since 2018.

As part of this process, the DfE sent out a questionnaire last year to “all responsible bodies”, asking them to provide information about the use of RAAC in schools across the country.

The government said “recent cases” have since led to a loss of confidence in buildings containing the substance. It did not explain what these cases are.

What were the schools told?

DfE has released an update guidance For schools whose buildings have RAAC confirmed, indicating that they must find emergency or temporary accommodation for the “first few weeks” of the term, until the buildings are secure with structural supports.

She recommends finding space at nearby schools or community centers, or an “empty local office building”.

The directive states that distance education, which has been popularized during the pandemic, should only be considered “as a last resort and for a short period”.

Up to this point, schools with RAAC confirmation have been told to make plans in case the buildings need to be evacuated.

Schools are now being told they cannot use the damaged buildings at all unless safety measures are in place.

Anyone who has not yet done so is also encouraged to fill out a DfE questionnaire, so that administrators can assist schools in administering a RAAC if one is found on site.

How are they supported?

All RAAC schools will be assigned a dedicated caseworker, who DfE said will work with the site to assess their specific needs.

The administration’s guidance to schools said funding would be provided for “capital funded” businesses.

The government said it had committed more than £15 billion since 2015 to support work related to the RAAC, including £1.8 billion for the period 2023-2024.

What were the parents told?

“Don’t worry” is the main message from the Minister of Education.

In a media interview, Gillian Keegan said most parents don’t have to worry at all – there are more than 20,000 schools in England, and just over 150 schools have an RAAC.

“We’re working to reduce this as much as possible,” she said. “My priority is the safety of your children and that is why we are taking these precautions.”

Ms Keegan said engineers combed school sites for RAAC and, over the summer, “some of our cases have given us cause for concern”.

“We need to take a cautious approach,” she added.

What other buildings might be affected?

RAAC does not exist only in educational institutions. It has also been used in many other public buildings, and is causing concern across the UK.

Several public buildings have been identified as at risk, including schools, hospitals and police stations.

In Scotland, more than 250 NHS buildings have been built using RAAC.

Health officials in the identified buildings are currently working on an investigation to determine if he is present, which is expected to take up to eight months.

Just last month, Harrow Crown Court, in northwest London, was closed for the foreseeable future after the RAAC was found to be in the process of improvements.

Since 2018, they have encouraged those responsible for public buildings to conduct surveys to identify materials and take steps to remove them if found.

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