With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the steps my department is taking to support education settings to respond to the risk of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, more commonly known as RAAC.
Before I go into specifics, I want to be clear that absolutely nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff. It has always been the case that where we are made aware of a building that poses an immediate risk, we have taken immediate action.
Parents and children have been looking forward to starting the new term and I understand the timing of this change in guidance to schools and colleges will have caused concern and disruption.
However, faced with recent cases. including one that emerged right at the end of the school holidays, I believe 100% that this is the right thing to do and that is why we have taken such rapid steps to support our schools and colleges. There are over 22,000 schools and colleges in England and the vast majority of them are unaffected by RAAC.
Local authorities and multi-academy trusts are responsible for these buildings, but we have been supporting schools and colleges to ensure risks resulting from RAAC are mitigated – to date, 52 schools and colleges have these mitigations in place. The majority have been able to continue to provide face-to-face learning without any disruption. We remain in contact with them.
Last week, we advised a further 104 schools and colleges to take spaces that are known to contain RAAC out of use if they have not already done so. The majority of these settings will remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing site, because only a small part of each site is affected.
A minority of pupils will be fully or partially relocated to alternative accommodation to continue face-to-face learning while mitigations are put in place.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to reassure parents and children that we are taking a deliberately cautious approach to prioritising children’s safety. Because of our proactive questionnaire and surveying programme, we have a better understanding of where RAAC is on the school estate than in other countries.
All schools and colleges that have advised us they suspect they might have RAAC will be surveyed within a matter of weeks – in many cases, in a few days. Most suspected cases will not have RAAC – so far, when we have surveyed schools, around two-thirds of suspected cases do not have RAAC.
We will follow the same approach with any new cases through the professional survey programme.
The vast majority of schools will be unaffected and children should attend school as normal unless parents are contacted by their school.
As my Right Honourable Friend the Minister for Schools explained on Friday, we will publish a list of schools once mitigations are in place.
It is right that parents are informed by schools if they are impacted, and that schools have time to work with their Department for Education (DfE) caseworker on those mitigations.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am confirming today that we will publish the list of the 156 schools with confirmed cases of RAAC this week, with details of initial mitigations in place. After this, we will provide updated information as new cases of RAAC are confirmed and existing cases resolved.
This will include updates on the impact on pupils, such as how many are learning face to face and how many are receiving short periods of remote education.
Once again, we are doing everything in our power to minimise disruption and avoid remote learning. Madam Deputy Speaker, I must thank the professional response of leaders, teachers and support staff in the sector, who have acted swiftly to deliver contingency plans.
Each impacted school and college has a dedicated caseworker to help implement a mitigation plan.
This could include other spaces on the school site, or in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area, until structural supports or temporary buildings are installed.
We have increased the supply of temporary buildings, working with three contractors, and accelerated the installation of these.
We have the support of our leading utility companies to ensure that those classrooms can be opened. In the small number of schools with confirmed RAAC, disruption to face-to-face learning has usually lasted for only a matter of days. In terms of funding, as the Chancellor said, we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe.
This includes paying for the emergency mitigation work to make buildings safe, including alternative classroom space, where necessary. Where schools need additional help with revenue costs, like transport to other locations, we are actively engaging with every school affected to put appropriate support in place.
We will also fund the longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects where these are needed, to remove RAAC. Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time.
Indeed, the question of how to manage its risks – across all sectors – has spanned successive governments since 1994.
My department alerted the sector about the potential risks of RAAC in 2018, following a sudden roof collapse at a primary school.
We published a warning note with the Local Government Association which asked all responsible bodies to ‘identify any properties constructed using RAAC’ and to ‘ensure that RAAC properties are regularly inspected by a structural engineer’.
In February 2021 we issued a guide on how to identify RAAC, concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough. In 2022, we decided to take a more direct approach. We issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies for all 22,000 schools to ask them to identify whether or not they had, or suspected, RAAC.
Responsible bodies have submitted responses to the questionnaire for 95% of schools with blocks built in the target period. In September 2022, we started a programme where DfE sends a professional surveyor to assess whether RAAC is present.
If RAAC was present, the previous DfE guidance was to grade it as critical or non-critical, and only take buildings out of use for critical RAAC cases.
Such was the level of our concern however, I asked officials to seek further evidence of risks, including to non-critical RAAC.
It is because of this proactive approach that we discovered details of three new cases over the summer, where RAAC that would have been graded as non-critical had failed without warning.
The first of these was in a commercial setting. The second was in a school in a different educational jurisdiction.
And in this instance the plank that failed remained suspended, resting on a steel beam. As the plank was fully intact, the DfE engineers were able to investigate the situation.
In their professional judgement the panel affected would have been previously rated as ‘non-critical.’ Ministerial colleagues and I were already extremely concerned, then a third failure of RAAC panels occurred, at a school in England in late August.
This was a panel that had previously been graded as non-critical. Because children’s safety is our absolute priority, and it was right to make the difficult decision to change our guidance for education settings so that areas previously deemed to contain non-critical RAAC are now being closed.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to set out why we are taking this more cautious approach with the education estate in England. Professional guidance is clear that wherever RAAC is found it needs to be monitored closely.
The school estate is very disparate, with 22,000 settings, with over 64,000 individual blocks. Monitoring RAAC closely is therefore very difficult to do in this estate – and many responsible bodies do not have dedicated estates professionals on all school or colleges at all times.
That is why the approach we are taking is the right one for our schools and colleges. My officials have worked closely with experts in this field.
Chris Goodier, Professor of Construction Engineering and Materials at Loughborough University has said that the ‘DfE has been employing some of the best engineers on this and have consulted us and the Institution of Structural Engineers’.
The Government’s priority is for every child across the UK to go to school safely.
My officials have been engaging urgently with the devolved administrations to discuss our findings and offer support to understand RAAC in school estates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Last week, I wrote to offer my support including further official or ministerial level engagement and to facilitate discussions between our technical experts.
I am aware this policy change occurred during recess and therefore I was not able to notify the House in advance – for that I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope you understand why I felt I had to take the decision when I did.
We are taking an extremely cautious approach to this issue – but I believe that this is the right thing to do when it comes to the safety of children.
I commend this statement to the House.