Living with RAAC: How one school is still coping with crisis

The hidden impact of the crumbly concrete on a school

‘There’s no flowchart for us, we’re doing lots of thinking really quickly’

Nine months after the RAAC crisis hit, the issue no longer dominates the news agenda but its fallout still impacts schools. Jessica Hill visits St Andrew’s Junior School, in the Essex village of Hatfield Peverel, to see the problems first hand

The story of what happened to a school at risk of collapse from reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) isn’t really one about buildings at all.

It’s about the extraordinary resilience of school staff faced with multiple crises. How leaders learnt to be kinder to themselves. And how, caught up in a storm of the uncontrollable, staff decided to focus on the things they could manage.

Allison Dutaut the schools deputy with Jess Hill and headteacher Rebecca Black in the kitchen

RAAC and nearly ruin

Last summer, clumps of RAAC fell from the rafters of St Andrew’s, despite its roof already being reinforced.

Headteacher Rebecca Black believes it was the trigger for education secretary Gillian Keegan’s dramatic U-turn on RAAC 10 days later. On the last day of August, 100 schools with the crumbly concrete were told they could not open for the new school year.

St Andrew’s, one of the 100, decamped to a Georgian wedding venue for the first six weeks of term.

Its 220 children are now back at their school site. But they are taught in temporary classroom blocks that sprawl across the playground, with the old RAAC-infested school building looming over them.

And while it has secured a place on the government’s rebuilding programme, alongside just over half of the 234 RAAC-affected schools, it’s unclear when the work will begin.

“The [pupils are] settled and making fantastic progress,” says deputy head Allison Dutaut, as she gestures at children playing on the patch of playground that remains.

“But there have been points in the last year where staff have been on their knees with exhaustion with the effort of making that possible. It’s the human cost.”

Around 14 years ago, the school’s ever-leaking roof was propped up with steel-frame reinforcements.

When Black took over as head in 2019 she asked the Department for Education to replace the roof. She was told to wait another three years.

It wasn’t until May last year that a survey detected RAAC’s presence. Black asked again for a new roof – this time she was told she must wait a further two years since the steel reinforcements meant it was “low priority”.

Then nine weeks later, on August 23, the site manager came to her with a box containing lumps of dislodged concrete. Leaks had caused the RAAC to fall apart. This time her call to the DfE got a very different reaction.

£5000 worth of hot boxes used to transport dinners to the new temporary hall

Through the ET tunnel

Black and Dutaut guide me into the old school building through an apocalyptic polythene-clad walkway propped up with scaffolding.

Black, who has retained her sense of humour as a coping mechanism throughout the crisis, refers to the walkway as the ‘ET tunnel’ as it evokes memories of the escape scene in the 1982 film.

Desolate classrooms, abandoned like the Mary Celeste on August bank holiday weekend, still have work pinned to the walls.

Staff only had time to grab essential items before the 54-year-old building was condemned.

Looking back, Dutaut believes the “loud banging noises” she heard must have been RAAC cracking above the room where year 3 children received extra reading practice.

The only room back in use is the school kitchen, where catering staff navigate their way around the metal poles of a ‘crash deck’. It was put in place last term to catch falling RAAC debris in polythene sheets above their heads. They can now cook hot dinners again for the 400 children across St Andrew’s junior school and its neighbouring infant and nursery schools (the latter two schools are RAAC-free).  

Food is wheeled to children in the new temporary hall via two ‘hot boxes’ the school bought for £2,500 a pop. Black compares them to the scream extractors in children’s film Monsters, Inc.

Before their return, caterers made sandwiches on half a metre of workbench in the nursery’s galley kitchen.

Sarah the catering manager working in the kitchen under the crash deck

Flight risks and fatigue

The school recently applied for counselling to support several members of staff. And Black still finds it hard to drive past Hatfield Place, the grand estate the school called home for a few weeks.

Its orangery and rose garden provided the children with “lots of beauty and cultural capital”, she says. But teaching had to be done in year group classes of 60. Smaller intervention groups weren’t possible and SEND children struggled.

Each week, furniture was carried to and from makeshift classrooms across the sprawling 15-acre estate. Limited resources meant many class activities stopped.

Dutaut admits patrolling the grounds each day was exhausting, and since the site was not secure, staff were forced to make “constant risk assessments” and “you were always thinking on your feet”. Some children with significant social, emotional and mental health needs were a “flight risk” and had to be permanently placed with alternative provision locally. Transporting children on and off site, with staggered departures via coach, car and on foot, also proved challenging.

Children learning at Hatfield Place

Dutaut reflects on the importance of everyone coming together for collective worship at the end of each day, allowing “that sense of community”.

The leadership team regularly put in 16-hour days. And Dutaut says there were times she returned home “absolutely exhausted” and fell into bed fully clothed.

Black adds: “There was a huge amount of pressure we were putting on ourselves to get the school up and running as quickly as possible.

“We didn’t realise what it would physically take, and how long-term the crisis would be. We were constantly trying to foresee the unforeseeable.”

It’s testament to the dedication of her team that only two families pulled children out of the school, for logistical reasons.

St Andrews staff at Georgian wedding venue Hatfield Place Picture credit Rebecca Farries

Everything is awesome

In late October, willing grandparents and former staff joined the decamp back to St Andrew’s and its new portable classrooms.

Black told the children it was like going to Legoland since their new classrooms resembled Lego bricks.

She says: “Some of the staff struggled with that concept, but the children really liked it.”

Although the temporary classrooms are a decent size, they lack storage space. There’s no room for PE, assemblies, interventions and staff meetings.

Heavy rain this winter meant the now-measly outdoor play area shrank by another third due to puddles and poor drainage.

Black says essential services have failed on dozens of occasions.

They nearly had to close the site when the pipes of the “three-season” toilets, as site manager Jason Pheifer calls them, froze and they wouldn’t flush.

On one occasion sewage flowed across the playground.

The three seasons toilets

A messier Ikea showroom

Black is incredulous that a fourth-hand prefab cabin, which she says came to the school “to die” 35 years ago, ended up “saving our bacon”.

Despite having been previously sealed off because its roof was falling in, it became the “emergency hub”.

Computers and essential files were moved inside despite rainwater dripping onto desks. Black arrived one morning to find the ink on her to-do list had been washed off.

The prefab’s roof was replaced and now the space resembles a messier version of an Ikea showroom, with screens dividing a makeshift staff room, breakfast club snug, maths intervention space/teachers’ dining table and kitchenette.

Since Easter, the school has also been able to hold phonics and maths interventions in three swanky wooden cabins, normally bought to be used as garden offices.

When “life gets back to normal” Black says she hopes to convert them into changing rooms for a new outdoor swimming pool that was being planned before the RAAC crisis hit.

Staff wheeling the hot boxes to the classrooms

Policy churn and burn

The headteacher is frustrated by how long progress has taken and describes “banging my head against every brick wall going” in countless meetings, tendering processes and decisions that often felt beyond her control.

Work on a temporary hall that staff hoped could be used for a Christmas fair only began in February. School assemblies were viewed remotely until it finally opened last month.

“I understand procurement processes,” says Black. “But this isn’t a normal situation. People are following flowcharts and there’s no flowchart for us – we’re having to do lots of hard thinking really quickly.”

While normally a school’s policies, risk assessments and evacuation plans “stay the same for decades” (aside from a “little polish”), St Andrew’s has been “rewriting significant chunks of policy”, says Dutaut. Guidelines drawn up in October were deemed “useless” by January.

The deputy headteacher says there was anxiety that someone would “come in and audit whether my piece of paperwork matches exactly what the children are doing… you can’t keep on top of it all in a site that’s changing as quickly as this is. But we’re learning to be kinder to ourselves about it”.

The school is currently in the window for an Ofsted inspection but the watchdog recently said RAAC schools can request a deferral.

Around 60 per cent of Black’s time is still taken up dealing with the RAAC fallout. Her makeshift office desk groans with paperwork.

But she says it’s important to smile since “stomping around because it’s hard and we’re frustrated only tells everybody else it’s OK to be grumpy about things”.

The temporary classrooms

A new school anthem

There have been silver linings, however. Toilet pipes are now insulated, and two old conservatories have been revived as intervention areas.

The school’s new hall hosts collective worship, which has been “transformative” in “making things feel more normal,” says Dutaut.

But there is a fear that so-called temporary structures may become more long term.

While the initial plan had been for the old RAAC roof to be replaced before the start of the next academic year, in February it emerged that because the building no longer complied with modern building regulations, a complete rebuild was required.

Initially, Black’s team were relieved. They assumed that being “the poster school for RAAC” they would be prioritised for a rebuild.

But relief turned to dismay when they heard they were on the same timeline as other schools facing less trying circumstances.

Black in her temporary office

St Andrew’s is one of 65 RAAC primary schools waiting to be rebuilt. The Department for Education has not said when work will be finished but its 10-year rebuilding scheme that runs to 2030 is already behind schedule. And because St Andrews’ temporary classrooms sit so close to the old school building, they may have to be moved before any rebuild can begin.

The words “elections” and “costs” kept being mentioned in a recent “very long and painful” meeting with DfE officials, Black says. She adds: “There are moments where we’re a pawn in a chess match – the DfE will do what they want, regardless of how much I stamp and shout.”

Amid the uncertainty, the leadership team have had to learn to “live more in the moment”, “let go of normal expectations” and be “adaptive to change at very short notice”, says Dutaut.

That’s not been easy because “as teachers, you’re used to being highly organised and micromanaging your environment”.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Black says her team’s theme tune is Elton John’s I’m Still Standing – and they all danced to it at their Christmas do.

“Our school is still standing. It’s still a place where all children love to learn,” she says, smiling.  

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