Children at risk in schools where concrete could collapse 'with no warning'

ITV News Investigations Correspondent Dan Hewitt reports from a Sheffield primary school that has 60-year-old roofs deemed at risk of collapse

Tens of thousands of children are being taught in schools built using concrete "liable to collapse" with "no warning", an ITV News investigation has found.

ITV News has found 68 schools have Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) – a potentially dangerous, lightweight, building material that was predominantly used in roofs between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The true number is likely to be higher, as our freedom of information request to 5,882 schools in England has revealed 1,466 schools built between the 1960s and the 1980s do not know whether they have RAAC, because they haven’t been checked.

That’s despite a national safety warning being issued in 2018 after the roof of a primary school in Kent made of RAAC collapsed with no warning. Fortunately, it occurred at a weekend when the building was empty and it has since been fixed.

We have also discovered, via a separate freedom of information request to local authorities, that following the collapse of Singlewell Primary in 2018, 3,717 schools were identified as needing a physical inspection for RAAC, but over half (2,044) still haven't been done.

A document published by the Department for Education in December 2022 stated that RAAC panels "increase the risk of structural failure, which can be gradual or sudden with no warning" and that "sudden failure of RAAC panels in roofs, eaves, floors, walls and cladding systems would be dangerous and the consequences serious".

Professor Chris Goodier, a leading expert on RAAC at Lougborough University explained some of the differences between traditional concrete and RAAC to us. "If you keep the RAAC nice and dry then you are fine but if you let water get to it, it can soak it up and if that water gets to the reinforcement inside, it can corrode it and make it rusty." He also explained how, if well built, RAAC can last longer than 30 years but construction and quality control methods during the 1960s and 1980s left it vulnerable to leaks and corrosion. "Post war we had a lot of factories building a lot of buildings very quickly because we needed to. Some of them were rushed and the quality control wasn't as good as it could be or as it would be nowadays," he said.

Pillars hold up an area of the ceiling in Abbey Lane Primary School, Sheffield. Credit: ITV News

With so many schools not knowing whether or not they have it, the situation has been described as a "ticking time bomb".

"We don't know what schools have got RAAC and what schools haven't got RAAC, and a visual survey will not assess it," says structural and building expert Warren Thomas.

"You have to do some investigative work within the concrete.

"It's a ticking time bomb. Do you want to take the risk of not looking at it just because your school may not have RAAC concrete?

'The fact that we know [RAAC] is out there in schools, but the government doesn't know which schools, is absolutely a concern,' James Bowen of the National Union of Headteachers says

"I wouldn't if I was sending my kids there."

RAAC is a light bubbly form of precast concrete, frequently used in public sector buildings in the UK from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. It is less durable than traditional concrete and has a shelf-life estimated to be around 30 years, according to the Standing Committee on Structural Safety.

In 2021, Abbey Lane Primary in Sheffield discovered they had it in three areas of the school which was built in the 1960s, including the roof of a year one classroom used by five and six-year-old pupils.

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Parts of the building with RAAC are now being held up by wooden props to make it safe, but the roofs need to be replaced.

"It absolutely should be a given that children enter school in buildings that are safe and that the funding from the government and local authorities is there to make sure those buildings are safe, and that's not always the case,” headteacher Maxine Stafford told ITV News.

"For various reasons, it (RAAC) has not been identified early enough and that is really frustrating, because you’re always at the back of your head (thinking) 'well there was an element of risk to the children at this point, and an element of risk to my staff'.

"Even now, it's taken us months…to get the remedies in place."

Abbey Lane has now been made safe but almost two years after the RAAC was identified, Sheffield Council confirmed to ITV News more than £500,000 will be spent replacing the school’s roofs. Work is due to begin in the summer of 2023 and will take five months.

The Department for Education (DfE) does not have an accurate record of which schools have RAAC.

DfE officials have been urging schools and responsible bodies to find out themselves and return the results in a questionnaire which closed at the end of February.

RAAC has also been identified in dozens of NHS hospitals, and the government has pledged to remove it entirely from the NHS estate by 2035, allocating £635m to mitigate the risks.

However, no target- and crucially no central funding- has been made available to tackle RAAC in school buildings.

Teaching unions have criticised the government for being too slow in identifying schools with it, and providing money for inspections to take place.

Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield.

“The government knows that there are a proportion of schools where RAAC is present - our concern is the government itself seems to be saying it can’t say precisely where RAAC is,” said James Bowen of the National Union of Headteachers.

“We'd like to see a lot more urgency from the government and a very clear plan. That needs to start with the government itself identifying exactly where this aerated concrete is present. We'd like them then to make sure that the right surveyors are checking where there are issues.

"Ultimately so much of this boils down to funding. Schools won’t have the kind of funds in their budgets required to put this right.

“That is why we are calling on the government to find that extra funding so that where there are issues, they van be addressed very quickly.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: "We take the safety of pupils and staff extremely seriously and where RAAC is confirmed at a school, we help schools to access appropriate support.

“We are working proactively with responsible bodies to help with identification and management of RAAC across the school estate and we urge all responsible bodies to respond to our questionnaire on this. 

“We have appointed three leading structural surveying firms to investigate all cases of suspected RAAC. Alongside this, we have allocated £13billion of capital funding for schools since 2015, including £1.8 billion in 2022-23, for essential maintenance and improvements.”

If you have a story about RAAC you would like to share, please get in touch with: investigations@itv.com