Site manager Jason Pheifer was the first to notice the spots of dirt accumulating under St Andrew’s Junior School’s skylights.
When he pulled a panel out from underneath one of the windows, he realised the dark blemishes were instead lumps of crumbly concrete – reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, the RAAC of recent headlines.
The discovery of the material in the final week of the summer holiday set in motion a chain of events in which classes moved out of the Essex building and into a Georgian country house up the road, better known for hosting weddings.
Now the venue’s orangerie, ballroom, reception and chapel – where couples pay up to £7,500 to tie the knot – have desks and whiteboards every Monday to Thursday.
Becky Black, the school’s head, says the site manager thought the ceiling tiles looked really grubby “so took it upon himself to take them down and start a ceiling project”.
RAAC ‘the size of man’s foot’
“When I came in, he said ‘you need to see this’. He had found blocks of concrete – some of them were the size of a man’s foot.
“The risk was if you were sitting under the tiles and more of the concrete had fallen on to one of the tiles, then the tiles would have cracked.”
The school was ordered to close on Tuesday, August 29, two days before the government escalated its RAAC policy. DfE officials told Black and two other members of St Andrew’s leadership team that they had a day to take essential items out of the building.
The three moved computers, medical information and staff files into the only structure on the school site that could be used – a temporary classroom that had been “condemned about five months before”. RAAC was in the entire school roof.
Allison Dutaut, the deputy head, estimates that she and the rest of the senior leadership team worked 14-hour days – even on weekends – making arrangements for the term.
“We had to start 100 paces back because we didn’t even have a building. All the work and the planning we’d put in for the school year and preparing for the children – the displays were up, the school was looking great and everything was ready – was for nothing.”
School’s rush to secure space
Dutaut’s first concern was organising emergency childcare after she was “inundated” with messages and calls from families “concerned about how they were going to cope”. She contacted the local village hall, a nearby church and nursery to see if they had space.
It wasn’t until last Monday that she received a call from Scouts offering to “cancel all their bookings for the next three weeks to allow us use of their hall free”.
Businessman Ian Twinley rang soon after. He asked Black if she would be interested using his wedding venue, Hatfield Place, for free.
The only caveat was the school had to “return the venue to exactly how it was by the end of Thursdays”.
“We store all of our teaching resources and furniture in a gazebo at the back of the building. It’s a massive additional workload for our team,” Dutaut says.
“At 7.30am on Mondays our crack team of parents and stuff carry everything into the building and have to plug in projectors, soundbars – they are setting up the classrooms from scratch.”
Most pupils were taught remotely in the first week of term, while the rest went to the Scouts’ hall. The youngsters’ first day at Hatfield House was on Monday.
RAAC first identified during May survey
Each morning they’re taken by bus from St Andrew’s to the manor house, walking through a rose garden to get into their new classrooms. They are taught with the rest of their year group in classes of 60.
“I’m seeing parents and children beaming as if they’re going on a school trip in the morning,” Black says. “Teaching here feels like being on a school trip, though it’s exhausting.”
The youngsters file out into the venue’s 15-acre grounds for their breaks, which Dutaut says poses huge challenges to staff as the fields “keep going to the road at one end and a river at the other”.
“There’s constant counting of heads. Our staffing ratios for breaktimes and lunchtimes are twice as much as usual, which means we had to reduce staff breaks because we have to keep the pupils safe.”
RAAC was first identified in St Andrew’s in a DfE survey three months ago. Following that – and another visit in June – Black was given the OK to keep the building open, as the roof had earlier been reinforced.
Over the summer break contractors were brought in to repair a series of leaks. They arrived thinking they had to patch up seven holes, but left having filled 14.
Black believes the combination of the workmen walking across the roof and heavy rainfall could have caused the concrete to disintegrate.
Essex’s ‘new town boom’ made county RAAC hotspot
Fifty-three of the 147 RAAC schools named by the government last week are in Essex. County council bosses have attributed this to the area’s significant growth during the 1960s and 70s, when “new towns boomed”.
Tony Ball, the authority’s cabinet member for education excellence, says the DfE has allowed the council to “pay for temporary classrooms on the guarantee they will pay it back”.
“It was quite a shock seeing the government’s list,” he says. “Of them, we have three schools in particular now that are causing us concerns and need major works.”
However leaders at St Andrew’s expect to continue using Hatfield Place until the October half-term when eight temporary classrooms will have been set up in the school’s playground.
A date for work to begin to start removing the RAAC has not been set, but Black and Dutaut hope they’ll be able to move back into the building by the end of the academic year.
“It feels like we’ve stepped back in time to Covid because we were having to make loads of proactive decisions to make sure our children are safe,” Black says.
“Back then, though, every head was in the same position. Now I think we’re the only school in this position in mid-Essex and we’re having to problem-solve by ourselves.”