As someone responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of 57 schools, you can never quite relax; there’s always a broken boiler or a burst pipe that demands immediate attention. But nothing quite prepared me for the call we received, just after midday on the Wednesday afternoon of the June half-term, telling us that one of our primary schools would not be able to re-open three days later. Or indeed, re-open at all. Ever.
Little did we know that RAAC was about to become a familiar term for schools across the country, and indeed across the wider public sector. Until then, it had been floating about as the latest acronym, with estates teams up and down the country completing surveys to check which buildings had it and to what extent.
We knew we would need to act extremely quickly. 337 children were due to be back in school the following Monday for the final six weeks of term, jam-packed with sports days, end-of-year goodbyes and all the normal things that make the end of the school year quite exciting enough.
As a large network of schools, we were incredibly fortunate to have a number of other local schools within a two-mile radius. The obvious first option – and the one that came to fruition – was to look at whether we could establish a temporary home for Hockley in one or more of these schools.
But of course, getting our children into school was just the first challenge. We had a building on our hands which had effectively been condemned by the DfE. We had a solution for the remainder of the school year, but what about after that?
Intensive discussions with DfE officials throughout the summer term concluded in an agreement to construct modular buildings ready for use in the autumn term. Hockley children would continue their education in our neighbouring AET schools until then.
At the time, we felt like we were one of the unluckiest schools in the country. But the situation at Hockley prepared us for what was to come, just days before the start of the new school year, when it became all too apparent that we were not alone.
Like 174 other schools, Tendring Technology College was given very little notice that buildings with confirmed RAAC would have to be immediately decommissioned. For us, this meant a key building, home to three main subjects, was suddenly sealed off.
But our Hockley experience stood us in good stead. In reality, Tendring was much more straightforward than Hockley. Through some nifty re-timetabling, the school managed to open with only one day’s delay for a few year groups. Since then, it has been running (largely) as normal, albeit with some lessons in different parts of the school.
Being told during half-term that your school cannot re-open after the holidays or in the dying days of August that buildings need to be mothballed is the stuff of nightmares. But the whole experience has been a galvanising and positive one. It has shown just what is possible when brilliant and committed people come together in pursuit of a common goal. That has unquestionably been made easier by dint of being part of a large network of schools with specialist expertise.
To their credit, of the three options we presented to the DfE they have opted for the costliest one: a full replacement of the affected roof. This is encouraging, as have been the indications that the wider school building programme will be protected and those that had been prioritised for a rebuild pre-RAAC won’t find themselves bumped off the list.
But bigger and more uncomfortable questions remain. RAAC is just one of many ills affecting the schools estate. In AET alone, the capital works needed to prevent serious deterioration of buildings is priced in at six times more than the School Condition Allocation (SCA) income we receive.
RAAC clearly needs to be dealt with, but so do asbestos, cladding, roofing, boilers, cracks – the list goes on. Like everyone else, we wait to see how the DfE and the treasury square this circle.