The blame game for our crumbling schools crisis has already begun.
More than 100 schools have been ordered to close or partially close just as the school year begins, due to the risks of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) that has now expired, with unions warning that this could be just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Hundreds of schools across the country were built with RAAC between the 1960s and 1990s, said Construction Enquirer, with the buildings having a life span of around 30 years. The material “has been compared to an Aero chocolate bar”, said The London Economic. Experts have warned that the crisis could extend beyond schools, with hospitals, courts and offices “also potentially at risk”.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was caught colourfully expressing her frustration at being the face of the scandal. “Does anyone ever say: you know what, you’ve done a fucking good job because everyone else has sat on their arses and done nothing?” she snapped after an ITV News interview, without realising her microphone was still recording.
Her outburst came after she had “come under pressure over the unfolding crisis”, said Sky News. Critics have highlighted the Conservatives’ “shambolic” handling of the situation, “claiming that risks associated with the dangerous material have been known about for years”. Labour has said its MPs had made more than 180 warnings about the outdated material in schools since last summer.
There is a long and convoluted timeline about who knew what when, but given the roughly 30-year lifespan of the material, noted The Guardian, “failures among RAAC roof panels in 1950s buildings were inevitable”.
What did experts know?
The “first warnings” that RAAC was cracking in roofs “came as early as 1995”, said The Times, when an engineer wrote to the journal of the Institution of Structural Engineers recommending that RAAC “not be used in permanent structures”. He described it as a “booby trap”.
The following year, the UK’s Building Research Establishment (BRE, then a government agency) published an information paper about RAAC roof planks from before 1980, warning of “excessive deflections and cracking”. In 2002, the now-privatised BRE (“but still working closely with the government”, noted The Guardian), issued a review, highlighting “excessive in-service deflections and crackings” in pre-1980s buildings.
“A period of calm about the risk from RAAC ended” in 2018, said The Guardian, when a ceiling in a Kent primary school collapsed on a Saturday, “having shown signs of structural stress the previous day”. Although nobody was hurt, “images of the destroyed room suggested people could have died”.
Kent Council wrote to local authorities, warning them to check for RAAC in their schools. The same year, the government published guidance for schools about the need for contingencies in case RAAC-affected buildings needed to be evacuated.
In 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) issued an alert for government departments, councils and building professionals highlighting the “significant risk” of failure of RAAC. “Sight must not be lost of the fact that the 2018 collapse was sudden with very little noticeable warning,” it said.
What did the government know?
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, traced the crisis back to a decision made in 2010 by the then education secretary Michael Gove, when he scrapped a £55 billion schools rebuilding programme. “The move was the first sign of the neglect that was to come,” she said. The project, originally proposed under Gordon Brown’s tenure, “became a high-profile victim of austerity”, said The London Economic. In 2016, Gove admitted his decision was a mistake.
In February 2021, the Department for Education (DfE) had issued its own guide about RAAC. That September, the Cabinet Office’s property team issued a formal warning notice to councils and schools. “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse,” it said. The following December (2022), the DfE’s annual report warned: “There is a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools.”
But in June this year, education minister Lady Barran told the House of Lords that the DfE was “not aware of any child or member of staff being in a school which poses an imminent safety risk”.
Eight days later, a report by the National Audit Office watchdog said that the DfE thought that injury or death from a school building collapse was “a critical and very likely” risk ever since the summer of 2021. The watchdog found that more than a third (24,000) of school buildings in England were “past their estimated initial design life”.
In May 2023, the DfE identified that RAAC could be present in 572 schools. But by the end of the month, it had completed only 196 investigations, confirming RAAC in 65 schools. As of 30 August, 156 educational buildings were confirmed to be built with RAAC, but only 56 had “mitigations” in place, said The Independent.
In August, the Health and Safety Executive announced: “RAAC is now life-expired. It is liable to collapse with little or no notice.”
#knew #flawed #concrete #schools