Schools built with weak concrete told to close buildings amid collapses

Credit: PA

Days before the new term starts more than 100 schools have been told their buildings are dangerous will be shut thanks to weak concrete being used in their construction, ITV News' Dan Hewitt reports

Schools and colleges in England built with lightweight concrete have been told by the government they must close buildings or put mitigations in place before they can open for the new school term.

A total of 156 schools are understood to have reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) inside their buildings. To date 52 of these have put mitigations in place.

The Department for Education asked 104 schools that do not yet have safety measures in place to close buildings known to contain RAAC.

RAAC is a potentially dangerous, lightweight, building material that was predominantly used in roofs between the 1960s and the 1980s.

ITV News understands two recent cases where RAAC collapsed without warning prompted the urgent change in policy.

Guidance issued to schools said they should find emergency or temporary accommodation for the “first few weeks” until buildings are made safe with structural supports.

But the department said ministers will only provide funding for works that are “capital funded” and that schools will have to pay for rental costs for emergency accommodation.

Space in nearby schools or space in community centres or an “empty local office building” was recommended.

They were told that moving to pandemic-style remote education should only be considered as a “last resort and for a short period”.

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

Professor Chris Goodier, a leading expert on RAAC at Loughborough University, previously explained the difference between RAAC and modern concrete to ITV News' Daniel Hewitt

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said telling schools to vacate areas containing RAAC is “the right thing to do for both pupils and staff”.

She insisted the plans would “minimise the impact on pupil learning”.

“Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term,” Ms Keegan said in a statement.

“We must take a cautious approach because that is the right thing to do for both pupils and staff.

“The plan we have set out will minimise the impact on pupil learning and provide schools with the right funding and support they need to put mitigations in place to deal with RAAC."

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) in June found that about 700,000 children in England attend schools requiring major repairs following years of underfunding, with poor conditions directly affecting pupil attainment and teacher retention.

RAAC is believed to have a lifespan of around 30 years. The NAO report warned that around 24,000 school buildings, or 38% of the total, were beyond their estimated design lifespan.

The department has been considering the potential risk posed by RAAC since 2018, following a roof collapse at a school in Kent.

Some 52 of the 156 educational settings containing the concrete have taken protective steps already this year. Credit: ITV News

Children's Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has called for “clear direction” over where pupils should go at the start of the new term.

She said: "After years of disruption for children and young people, what they need most is stability and getting back to normal. We must learn lessons from the pandemic, and we need to see proper communication to children and families affected by this guidance."

Unions and opposition parties criticised the government for failing to take action sooner, as schools were being shuttered ahead of the return from the summer break.

The National Education Union (NEU) blasted the government for expecting schools to pay additional costs for its “shocking neglect of school buildings”.

General Secretary Daniel Kebede said: “It is absolutely disgraceful, and a sign of gross Government incompetence, that a few days before the start of term, 104 schools are finding out that some or all of their buildings are unsafe and cannot be used.

“To add insult to injury the government states in its guidance that it will not be covering the costs of emergency temporary accommodation or additional transport.”

The Unison public service union’s Head of Education Mike Short said: “This situation is nothing short of a scandal.

“The DfE and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings."

Short said waiting "until the eleventh hour" will create "turmoil" for thousands of families.

The DfE said it would not be disclosing how many schools will be told to close completely.

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