Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete or ‘RAAC’ is a new concept for many people, but actually it is one that Saffron Academy Trust has been cognisant of for some time. To imply that we have been, to intentionally misquote Gillian Keegan, “resting on our backsides” about RAAC is offensive to say the least. Let us explain why, because our offence has little to do with her vulgar language choices.
As the secretary of state for education has been so keen to remind us in recent days, the responsible bodies for school buildings are trusts and local authorities. As a trust, we take that responsibility seriously and we have exercised such responsibility.
In 2020, a term after Honywood School in Essex joined Saffron Academy Trust, we commissioned a full survey of the building. RAAC was identified. We learned from the survey that the concrete panels were “in good condition” and that “monitoring at a maximum of two-yearly intervals” was recommended.
We were instructed that “new roof coverings are required”, so we undertook this remedial action and funded it through the Schools Capital Allocation (SCA). This rapid response was considered good practice by the DfE and we were confident that we had exercised our health and safety duty in a fully compliant way.
It was not until March 2023 that we sensed greater concern from the DfE about RAAC. We were asked to complete questionnaires about its presence at Honywood. We responded promptly, which was then followed up with a survey in June. The DfE report on 5 July recommended the same monitoring programme that we already had in place and the need to develop a longer-term RAAC management plan. There was no suggestion at this time that we needed to take emergency action, but the trust team nevertheless began to prepare the management plan,.
You can imagine our shock, therefore, to be told on 31 August that we would need to evacuate all buildings with RAAC with immediate effect. This was a radical change in policy and guidance, which may have percolated in the expensively refurbished offices of the DfE during August but was only communicated to us in the dying days of the summer holidays.
We were given 24 hours to work out how we would close 22 classrooms, an additional 22 office spaces and yet keep the school open for face-to-face teaching. We’ve managed to develop a two-week blended learning plan which gives students between 50 to 70 per cent of their timetabled lessons in our unaffected classrooms. We will deliver the rest of the teaching remotely.
Simultaneously, we are now working on a medium-term plan to source temporary classrooms and the engineering solutions to mitigate the risks for a further five years. It looks as if it will take months. Other schools nearby are affected – some entirely shut – and there is only so much capacity to make and fit these bespoke solutions.
It is not the beginning of the school year anyone wanted or could have anticipated. It has frustrated parents, it is not the excellent experience we want for our learners and it has certainly caused huge stress for staff. It is difficult to see any positives at the moment, but we are hanging onto one thread of hope: that this chaos may finally lead to a new school building.
So when Gillian Keegan reminds us that we are the responsible body, our response to her is that we know that. We hasten to remind her that the responsibility for policy, guidance and capital funding lies with her team.
Every year, we spend the SCA on safety and maintenance issues: asbestos removal, fire doors and fire detection, roof replacement or repair. When those issues are addressed, there is little left in the pot for anything else.
SCA was never intended to cover critical building failure. We need an extensive and properly funded rebuilding programme and a government prepared to own the responsibility for its school estate.