Schools deemed at risk of collapse because of a “crumbly concrete” in their buildings have been ordered to draw up contingency plans to evacuate pupils.
Leaked internal Department for Education documents show government officials have been calling councils and academy trusts whose schools have reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
Leaders have been told to be prepared to evacuate their pupils and find places for them at other schools or in portable classrooms. Plans must be drawn up before the start of term next week.
It marks a ramping up of government efforts to deal with RAAC. Its potential danger was first highlighted in 2018 when a Kent primary school roof collapsed.
But shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the calls were “shocking evidence of a department in disarray.
“With days to go before the start of term and despite knowing about the potential risks posed by [RAAC] for months, Conservative ministers are now phoning schools to ask them if they are ready to close, further disrupting children’s education.”
The DfE recently updated guidance to schools on identifying and managing the material. Responsible bodies have been asked to complete questionnaires on its presence in school sites since 2022.
According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report published in June, the DfE has identified 572 schools that may contain the material.
Emergency plans needed ‘regardless’ of RAAC rating
Engineers commissioned by the department have ranked buildings containing RAAC panels on the severity of the risk they pose – high, medium or low.
But in the internal DfE documents stated: “We want to ensure that all responsible bodies have a clear contingency plan to take RAAC spaces out of use, regardless of rating and what it would take to implement that plan ahead of the start of term.”
In a ‘frequently asked questions’ page, DfE said it wants to ensure clear plans are in place to ensure “under any eventuality, if spaces have to be taken out of use that disruption to face-to-face education would be kept to an absolute minimum”.
The document also states that the DfE wants to make sure all responsible bodies are “prepared” to evacuate buildings, but is “not giving this advice at present”.
For schools where RAAC has been confirmed in some areas, but suspected and not yet confirmed in others, the letter sets out that “action may need to be taken in these areas as well”.
Responsible bodies are advised that if the area is in the same block or the building is of a “similar age and structure” to the confirmed RAAC, they should “treat these areas as if RAAC is present until a survey confirms if that is the case”.
Buildings could be closed for years
Meanwhile, it adds that the department will “support” schools to minimise disruption to education, including providing capital funding for mitigation works as required.
Medium term remediation could take up to three years, involving propping or refurbishment of buildings or sourcing “temporary modular accommodation”.
Long term remediation, which would take at least a year, would involve “a plan for remediation or a new build”.
“The DfE will provide support with funding urgent mitigations including propping, failsafe, strengthening works and the provision of temporary classrooms if needed,” the document says.
It adds that the department has arrangements in place for mobile classrooms if “longer term” temporary accommodation is needed.
Schools are also advised that in some cases of closure, school year groups may be “displaced across multiple schools”.
Responsible bodies – which are councils for maintained schools or the academy trust for academies – are also recommended to use their “existing network of contacts across local schools and the local authority to assist in managing the impact of multiple closures”.
DfE ‘ready to support’ with RAAC closures
A line in the script, to be reeled off to councils and trusts, adds: “The department stands ready to support you on this.”
Officials contacted schools during the bank holiday weekend. They should tell schools this was because it had emerged some “do not have substantial enough contingency plans”, the documents stated.
Schools were also told they may wish to consider “decanting” IT equipment and making transport arrangements to and from alternative locations.
If a school is expecting an Ofsted visit when “contingencies are activated”, the DfE also says it will ensure inspections can be deferred.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is absolutely right that children and staff safety should be prioritised, but it is deeply concerning that with only a few days to go until the start of the new term schools are now being told to close parts of the building.”
In September, the Office for Government Property issued a safety briefing warning that RAAC was “life-expired and liable to collapse”. It was used widely in flat-roofed school buildings.
The government recently widened its inquiry into RAAC to all public buildings.
In June, it emerged a handful of schools had to close after RAAC was found. One school, which is spending thousands of pounds bussing pupils to alternative settings, said it might take four years to resolve and cost nearly £2 million.
In a statement, the DfE said: “The safety of pupils and teachers is our utmost priority.
“Where we confirm [RAAC] is present, we work with individual education settings on how to manage RAAC and develop contingency plans to minimise any disruption to education.”