RAAC

The DfE has left schools between a RAAC and a hard place

To close or not to close? The RAAC issue leaves schools in a tough spot with no obvious end in sight, writes Andrea Squires

To close or not to close? The RAAC issue leaves schools in a tough spot with no obvious end in sight, writes Andrea Squires

1 Sep 2023, 16:47

The DfE is

The Department for Education’s announcement yesterday that schools affected by RAAC should close facilities has sent shockwaves through the sector. The timing of the announcement has been much criticised, giving schools very little chance to consider any alternatives – or the legal implications of both closing and remaining open.

Comparisons have been drawn with the various Covid lockdowns but this is very different, not least because it is not affecting all schools equally. The league tables make no distinction between a school that was blessed with good fortune during the year and one that might have had to struggle through one crisis after another.      

Ultimately, the decision to shut down teaching spaces rests with academy trusts and governing bodies, not the DfE or indeed the local authority. However, the risk and consequences of any harm to children and staff clearly lies with the school.

Schools asked by the DfE to close blocks with RAAC but who don’t have any alternatives may be tempted to remain open but would need to think hard before they do. They must show that a full risk assessment has been carried out, that there is ongoing appropriate monitoring of any deterioration and that the school is taking all reasonable steps to avoid the foreseeable risk of harm (and loss of facilities).

The situation is not unlike that affecting the owners of flats in high-rise residential buildings with Grenfell-style cladding, and we may see the introduction of new safety regulations to manage the increasing risk of building failures following decades of under-investment in school buildings. Specialist advice will clearly be needed.  

Any decision to close the whole or part of a site must consider the impact on all pupils, particularly those with SEN. Previous decisions to send pupils home have protected vulnerable groups, but this will be more difficult where schools are trying to continue as normal in other facilities.

Any decision to close the whole or part of a site must consider the impact on all pupils

Covid demonstrated the challenges to trying to harmonise both on-site and remote provision and the impact on teaching workloads. No information is being provided as to how long this situation might last or indeed whether it might deteriorate further with more schools being dragged into the spotlight. The National Audit Office identified 500 schools in June 2023 as being “in the most urgent need” for the purposes of the School Rebuilding Programme.  

The challenges of an ageing estate and significant underfunding are compounded by a lack of experience in schools in respect of managing estates as well as a confusing capital funding system. Schools will be both desperate to open their doors to provide the condition information required by the DfE to enable a risk assessment to be done and terrified of the results.

The holistic approach of ‘Building Schools for the Future’, which was axed by the then-new Conservative government in 2010, was probably over-ambitious, but the capital programmes that have followed since have been underwhelming.

The demands on public finances make it hard to see where the DfE will get the money it needs to fix the problems. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider a private finance solution again.   

In the short term, the uncertainty and the lack of construction capacity to carry out quick fixes (No one will want to be responsible for a catastrophe in a school.) means those affected by RAAC are in for a bumpy ride.

The DfE may feel they had no choice in making their announcement, but they have not helped by introducing a level of hysteria into what is already a really tricky situation – a hysteria which is feeding straight into parents’ paranoia and could well undermine their stated aim to drive up attendance after the pandemic.

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