More than 100 schools have been told they must immediately shut buildings that have a dangerous “crumbly” concrete – just a few days before the new academic year starts.
The Department for Education has ramped up its policy on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) to mandate all school buildings with it must now close. This action was previously only taken in the worst cases.
It is understood officials learned over the summer of cases where buildings with RAAC collapsed despite not showing any signs of deterioration.
Officials have promised schools they will fund any immediate works such as propping up buildings, but funding for longer-term solutions is still unclear. New guidance for schools has also been published.
But Labour, unions and council leaders have criticised the 11th-hour intervention.
So what do schools need to know? Here’s your trusty Schools Week round-up:
1. How many schools are at risk of collapse?
So far, there are 156 confirmed cases of RAAC in schools. But this is expected to be higher as not all schools have done surveys to check for it.
Of those, 52 have already been supported to put mitigations in place – including through additional funding for temporary accommodation – and all children will be back in face-to-face learning next week.
That leaves 104 schools with no mitigations in place and having to vacate any space or building with RAAC.
DfE said a small minority will have to either fully or partially relocate, with most able to remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing site.
All affected schools have now been assigned a caseworker from the DfE to help with mitigation plans.
2. Will these schools have to close?
A small minority are expected to have to either fully or partially close their buildings, with most able to remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing site.
The new guidance points out that if the RAAC is in a small enough area, schools may be able to close the space with “minimal disruption”.
If schools aren’t left with enough space to accommodate pupils, they should find temporary accommodation “for the first few weeks” until the building “has been made safe through structural supports”.
Such accommodation could include local schools, nurseries or colleges, temporary buildings that can be brought on-site quickly or space in community centres or empty office buildings.
If it is not safe to use structural supports to make RAAC areas safe, schools will need to procure temporary accommodation on-site. If they don’t have the space, they’re advised to contact their caseworker.
3. Who will fund all the repair work?
The DfE says it will provide funding for all mitigation works that need capital funding. However this will only be for “essential immediate works needed to remove any immediate risk”, which could be propping up affected buildings.
Government has only said it would work with councils and academy trusts to manage the longer-term work to rid buildings of RAAC, and pointed to the regular capital funding streams available each year and the school rebuilding programme.
Bodies and schools who have “difficulty” funding the extra costs are told to discuss it with their caseworker and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
There is some confusion over funding for temporary buildings for those affected. A DfE press release says they will fund this, while the new guidance states schools and councils are expected to fund any “additional revenue cost”, such as rent for temporary accommodation or transport costs.
DfE has been asked for clarification.
4. Why have ministers suddenly decided to shut schools?
RAAC has been known about for years. Last September, the Office for Government Property (OGP) issued a safety briefing notice to all property leaders warning RAAC is “now life expired and liable to collapse”.
Government-commissioned structural engineers have been visiting schools for the past year to assess whether they contain RAAC. Those that did were given a rating from ‘critical’ to ‘low risk’.
But government said over the summer it learned of a “small number of cases” where RAAC “failed” without warning. This included both education and non-education buildings.
Ministers have been content to let this chaos continue for far too long
The DfE said today that it is now “taking a cautious approach to prioritise safety whilst minimising the disruption to learning”.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan said this was “the right thing to do for both pupils and staff”.
But shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said it was an “absolutely staggering display of Tory incompetence.
“Dozens of England’s schools are at risk of collapse with just days before children crowd their corridors. Ministers have been content to let this chaos continue for far too long.”
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said leaving this until the end of the summer holidays gives them “very little time to make urgent rearrangements and minimise disruption to classroom learning”.
“The LGA has been warning of the risk from RAAC in schools since 2018″, they added, calling for a national RAAC taskforce.
5. Should I get my school checked for RAAC?
Schools that are unsure about the presence of RAAC in buildings have been told to ensure they have contingency plans in place in case the material is confirmed following a survey.
They are also advised to “do all [they] can” to make settings available to be surveyed, respond to the DfE’s questionnaire and not to drill, cut or disturb anything they think may be RAAC.
6. If my school has RAAC, will I still be inspected?
Ministers are “working closely” with Ofsted to share information and make sure it is taken “into account” in scheduling inspections.
If a school is restricting attendance, or has substantial disruption due to RAAC, and have been notified of an inspection, they can contact the lead inspector at Ofsted and discuss deferral options.
Schools have also been urged to have “contingencies” in place in the event exams and assessments are disrupted, in line with the latest emergency planning guidance.
This includes having arrangements for alternative venues.
7. Will pupils have to learn at home again?
In exceptional circumstances where RAAC disruption has meant leaders need to “temporarily prioritise” face-to-face lessons, leaders should give priority to vulnerable pupils, the children of critical workers and those about sit exams.
Guidance states remote learning “should only ever be considered as a last resort and for a short period of time where the alternative would be no education provision”.
“Work provided during these periods should be high quality, meaningful, ambitious and cover an appropriate range of subjects to enable pupils and students to keep on track with their education.”
Schools should continue to provide free lunches for any pupils not in classrooms and also continue to offer extra-curricular activities “wherever possible”.
If RAAC has taken the usual spaces used for this out of action, schools should consider “whether alternative arrangements could be made to deliver the provision safely”, such as another school site, local venues or the school’s temporary accommodation.
While legal duties relating to children with an education health and care plan would still apply, guidance states it “may be challenging” to deliver the same support, for instance a teaching assistant.
If this is the case, the school and council must consider if there are other ways they can meet statutory duties for children.
Schools should also consider having phone calls to keep in touch with vulnerable children learning at home. This is particularly important “given you may not have seen your pupils during the summer holidays”, guidance adds.
8. Will pupils stay on roll if schools close?
The government said the local authority or school is responsible for organising alternative accommodation, if needed. They should also “agree this with parents of affected pupils”.
If a parent wants to move their child to a different school, they “should make an in-year application through existing admissions processes”.
But even if a school is in emergency or longer-term temporary accommodation on a different site, the DfE believes that “in many cases pupils will be able to remain on the roll of their existing education setting”.
9. What is the advice for special schools?
Where specialist provision – such as special schools and alternative provision – is impacted, the school should inform the body responsible for commissioning placements as soon as possible.
The commissioner, which could be a council or school, will need to consider the impact and duration of the disruption and whether alternative arrangements should be made in the short or long term.
As there are “varying contexts”, specialist schools will require “different solutions” which the DfE caseworker can advise on.
It is likely families of pupils in specialist provision will face “additional care issues” if they receive temporary home education.
“It is essential that this is carefully considered, and, where relevant, appropriate support arrangements are made in consultation with local children’s social care teams.”