RAAC: Conservatives’ concrete crisis causes classroom chaos

A long-read on the week the RAAC ‘ticking time bomb’ exploded

A long-read on the week the RAAC ‘ticking time bomb’ exploded

Gillian Keegan
Long read

A minister has vowed to seek expert advice over school leaders’ “grave concerns” that visual inspections required by government may not be enough to find hidden RAAC.

Senior DfE officials and ministers face being hauled in front of MPs next week to explain their “shambolic” handling of the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) crisis, which exploded last week.

The DfE said nearly 150 schools, with about 100,000 pupils, had confirmed RAAC as of last Wednesday, with dozens more emerging.

But the education secretary has remained defiant, despite intense criticism. Gillian Keegan went on the attack blaming “sensationalist” media coverage and telling schools to “get off their backsides” to complete RAAC questionnaires.

Academies minister Baroness Barran later apologised after councils and trusts were wrongly told they had failed to complete the survey.

Bridget Phillipson
Bridget Phillipson

Others were unable to provide information about RAAC presence – casting doubt on the accuracy of official figures.

Barran also vowed to look into concerns that more ‘crumbly’ concrete would not have been picked up by checks.

Meanwhile, heads are pleading for marquees and temporary classrooms as back-to-school week has been thrown into chaos.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “The defining image of 13 years of Conservative government is one of children cowering under steel props, there to stop the ceiling falling in on their heads.

How the RAAC timebomb exploded

The sudden decision to close schools was triggered by three new cases that the department said it became aware of over the summer.

Previously, only schools with RAAC assessed as “high risk” had to close.

The first incident was a commercial setting, the second a failed plank at a school in a different country and the third a panel failure at an English school in late August.

In all cases, the RAAC had been considered non-critical and collapsed “without warning”.

The DfE refuses to name these institutions or give exact dates of when they became aware as the cases were “under investigation”.

The Guardian reported one of the cases prompted the government’s change of approach was Queen Victoria School, a private boarding school in Scotland. However ther DfE said this was inaccurate.

The newspaper claims the department sent health and safety officials to examine it in May, calling into question the government’s assertions it only became aware of issues over the summer.

Barran also told the House of Lords in July – two months later – that she was “absolutely clear” the DfE “is not aware of any child or member of staff being in a school that poses an imminent safety risk”. 

She is expected to be probed on the timeline of events at a special session of the education committee on September 19.

Senior DfE officials are also likely to be recalled to the public accounts committee on Monday, which had closed its inquiry on school buildings over the summer.

Back-to-school chaos

The last-minute closure decision left headteachers scrambling to draw up emergency plans. Nearly a third had to delay the start of term or educate some pupils remotely.

Some heads handed over their own offices to convert into classrooms while waiting for news from the government on temporary teaching spaces.

The overflow carpark at Farlingaye High in Suffolk will now house toilet blocks and eight temporary classrooms, with the first being constructed today.

Eighteen classrooms, toilets and changing rooms at the school are cordoned off.

East Anglian Schools’ Trust could fork out up to £300,000 in instalments over the next 12 months, with the start of term delayed.

The government said it will fund mitigation works to “remove any immediate risk”, which could including propping up affected buildings.

It will also fund capital works such as installing temporary classrooms on site, but will not fund revenue costs – like bussing pupils to other schools. (The government has since updated guidance to say “all reasonable requests” for revenue costs will now be funded).

“In terms of the process of getting the money, I haven’t a clue,” said Angelo Goduti, the trust’s chief executive.

Classes in head’s office as schools get creative

Staff are being “creative” to find space inside the school, with the headteacher’s office set to be converted into a makeshift classroom.

An example of propping in a hospital with RAAC

Nick Hurn, boss of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, said three of his schools in the north have been forced to close, with Durham University offering space free.

But he added: “If we have two double-decker buses with 160 kids [from one school] travelling to a different area, that’s soon going to rack up some costs.”

The South Suffolk Learning Trust needs 28 temporary classrooms to make up for lost space across three of its schools.

Sarah Skinner, its chief executive, has secured six for 12 weeks costing £125,000. But, so far, she has had “no information” about how to claim the cash back.

Keegan told MPs that the supply of temporary buildings has been increased with their installation “accelerated”. But so far, no information has been made publicly on how this will work.

When Schools Week asked DfE for more information, they said it was “still commercially sensitive” as contracts are not yet signed.

Skinner said: “If they’re lined up and ready to go, as Ms Keegan said this week, I don’t know why I haven’t got a date and know how many I can have.”

‘Priority school’ confusion

Two headteachers at RAAC schools wrote to parents to say they are a “priority school” and have been bumped up the list for help.

Andy Perry, head at Myton School in Warwick, said its “DfE contact” confirmed “we are now a priority school, at the top of the list … we are being tracked by some important people in government”.

Likewise, James Saunders, head at Honywood School in Essex, said the DfE and council has classed it as a “national priority school”.

However, the DfE told Schools Week it wasn’t a term it recognises – causing even more confusion.

Honywood is now fundraising to cover the costs of remote learning and temporary classrooms raising £2,000 so far.

It is among 53 Essex schools with RAAC, the hardest-hit area.

Councillor Carlo Guglielmi said Essex was the “highest populated area” in the country after London was ruined during the Second World War, so many new schools had to be built during the time RAAC was in use.

Keegan shrugs off criticism

Keegan came under fire this week for telling schools to “get off their backside” and fill in a questionnaire on RAAC that has been live since last March.

But it then emerged some responsible bodies were wrongly told they had failed to complete the questionnaire.

Other trusts were unable to provide updated information about the press once of RAAC, while others had to tell the DfE they were missing from the official list.

School leaders have also been told there is a 48-hour lag between uploading RAAC data and feeding into DfE lists.

During a meeting on Wednesday with more than 400 members of the Confederation of School Trusts, Barran offered an “unreserved apology” for the issues and the “tone” of a letter that seemed to threaten naming and shaming those who had not responded to the survey.

She also gave an “assurance” that trusts and councils deemed not to have completed the questionnaire “will not be named publicly”.

Keegan has been heavily criticised, including by traditionally right-leaning newspapers.

The Sun reported “fury” at the DfE spending £34 million on refurbishing its own offices, while The Mirror revealed the DfE handed a £1 million for a IT contract to a company Keegan’s husband is a non-executive director of. The money came from its rebuilding fund.

However Keegan had no involvement in either of those decisions, and there is no suggestion of wrong doing.

Meanwhile prime minister Rishi Sunak has escaped such scrutiny, despite him being the chancellor who refused DfE pleas to provide more rebuilding cash amid warnings of a “critical risk to life if this programme is not funded”.

But the education secretary said others had “sat on their arse” as she and the department had been doing a “f***ing good job”.

Defending her record in the Commons, Keegan said she was “very serious” about getting rid of RAAC.

The number of surveying companies has increased from three to eight to try and get through all suspected RAAC cases in the next two weeks.

‘Concern’ over RAAC surveys

Barran has also agreed to “seek expert advice” about “grave concerns” that visual inspections of schools may not be enough to find concealed RAAC.

Previous guidance encouraged an initial “visual inspection” by “someone who has responsibility for building or estate management as well as the day-to-day running of the school”.

But “depending on experience, advice may be required from a building professional”.

However it was only once RAAC was “suspected or identified” that schools were recommended to appoint a specialist structural engineering consultant, and only at stage four of the process was an “intrusive” investigation recommended.

Updated guidance last week – when the government escalated its response – also recommends an initial visual inspection, but states that if responsible bodies were still “unsure” after that process, they should appoint an expert.

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said many confederation members were concerned about the reliability of the DfE guidance and were questioning whether they could rely on it.

In response, Barran had “offered to take this issue away and seek expert advice. I have asked for the DfE’s assessment or risk and reassurance on this matter as soon as possible”.

Two MPs also raised the issue of asbestos, including fears RAAC was hiding behind the lethal material.

In response, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said all schools had an asbestos register and the substance would be be removed if needed for RAAC mitigation works.

Schools Week revealed earlier this week how RAAC schools had previous rebuilding work cancelled, while others were turned down for new schools.

With the Treasury refusing so far to promise new money to fix buildings, sector leaders are concerned other schools in need of repairs will now miss out as already inadequate capital funding pots are raided.

Correction: Keegan’s husband is non-executive director of the IT firm, not director.

Additions: We added a paragraph to make clear there is no suggestion of wrongdoing from the Mirror or Sun story, and that Keegan had no involvement in either decision. We have reflected in the piece that the DfE rebuts claims made in a quoted Guardian article, after they contacted us post publication.

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