The government will check whether responses from schools about the prevalence of RAAC in their buildings are accurate amid concerns hidden ‘crumbly’ concrete may have been missed.
Department for Education officials were hauled in to appear before an emergency public accounts committee hearing today for their response to the crisis.
Since last March, responsible bodies that oversee schools – either a council or academy trust – have been asked to fill in a questionnaire on whether their buildings have the material, which is based on guidance of what to look out for.
But academies minister Baroness Barran last week vowed to seek expert advice over school leaders’ “grave concerns” that visual inspections required by government may not be enough to find hidden RAAC.
Government may consider more RAAC surveys
Jane Cunliffe, chief operating officer at the DfE, told MPs: “We are concerned, of course, that where questionnaire responses have come in that target era [buildings between 1930 and 1990] and said no we don’t have RAAC, we will do a sample of those and that will include surveyors going out to some of those sites.
“We will look at the reasons that were given for that confidence that RAAC wasn’t there. It might be that they’ve had a new roof and so know it’s been removed but we will do that sample check.
“We have the surveying capacity focused on the suspected cases as an order of priority, but we will do that sample check on the risk for false negatives. If that sample check shows there were false negatives, we will have to think about what we do and whether there’s more surveying we need to do.”
Cunliffe was challenged by Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney over how “confident you are the questionnaire was the most robust way to collect information”.
DfE seeing ‘more false positives’
“Do you really think headteachers were well qualified, well positioned and sufficiently knowledgeable about the contents of their building to give you the answers you need?” the MP asked.
Cunliffe said it was responsible bodies who were tasked with filling in the form, adding official guidance stated an estates manager is best-placed to respond. Anyone unsure could also get assistance from a building surveyor or contact the department.
Susan Acland Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, said the issue was one “we are keeping a really careful eye on”.
“We are seeing a lot more false positives than false negatives, so our guidance really did encourage schools that if they weren’t sure they should err on the side of caution and suggest that they might have it and that we would then do the check.”
She said two-thirds of schools that suspected they had RAAC were actually found to be free of the material when a government-commissioned surveyor checked.
‘Schools being rightly cautious over RAAC’
“That’s not a criticism. We think that suggests schools are being rightly cautious,” she added.
Cunliffe stressed the department had “always planned” to sample school responses for accuracy.
“At the moment, our surveying capacity just for the next few weeks is really focused on those questionnaire responses where they say they suspect they have got RAAC, then we will ask the firms to do that sample check.
“Obviously if that sample check shows that some of those negative responses did have RAAC we will have to consider how to filter those negative responses, e.g. for age or type of building and revisit those schools.”
The official said more funding has been allocated to assist schools who were unclear whether their buildings had the concrete.
She added the department was “happy to talk to any schools where they would like to be refunded for surveys they did”, particularly those in areas with “high incidence” of RAAC.