Schools minister Nick Gibb has warned that more schools could be forced to close before the new academic year starts next week due to the presence of unstable concrete in their buildings.
As exclusively revealed by i on Thursday, more than 150 schools across the country could contain a building material called reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which could cause their buildings to collapse.
The Department for Education (DfE) later announced it had contacted 156 schools in England warning them that their buildings contain RAAC. Of those, 52 schools have already received repair works in the past few months, but 104 require urgent action. It means thousands of pupils face being forced to return to remote learning as they begin the new school year.
But Mr Gibb admitted on Friday that more schools may be affected by the presence of RAAC.
He told GB News: “We are putting large amounts of capital into the school estate to improve the condition and, by the way, RAAC applies only in the period between the 1950s and the 1990s, so schools built or extended before that period or afterwards – which is about half the school estate – will not even need to consider whether they have RAAC.”
He added that DfE had been working on “surveys and evidence-gathering since 2022” but conceded that “there could be more” school buildings found which are at risk of collapse.
Schools that have been told they are affected by RAAC have been forced to erect portable buildings in playgrounds, find alternative building arrangements, or impose remote learning.
The Government will not provide funding for emergency classroom accommodation or transport alternatives.
Which schools are closing due to RAAC?
Parents should be told if their child’s school is affected by RAAC. “Parents will be informed by the school. We were speaking to schools yesterday, some more today, and then schools are telling parents what action they are taking,” Mr Gibb said.
The official DfE advice, he added, is that buildings or rooms containing RAAC should be “taken out of use”.
The DfE has refused to release a list of the schools which must close or publish a regional breakdown, but details of the affected sites are slowly becoming clear.
Kingsdown School, a special school in Southend-on-Sea, was reportedly ordered by the DfE on Thursday to close its main building immediately.
The school’s headteacher, Louise Robinson, said: “Instead of preparing to welcome our students back to class, we’re having to call parents to have very difficult conversations about the fact the school is closed next week.
“We’re hoping that a solution can be found that allows us to open the school, at least partially, but that entirely relies on ensuring the safety of our pupils and staff, and approval by DfE.”
Essex county councillor Tony Ball said three local authority schools are known to have RAAC. He did not name the schools, adding the council was “working quickly to establish schools affected in the county”.
Hockley Primary School, in Rochford, south Essex, is one school where RAAC has been discovered in the ceiling.
The school was ordered to shut in June by the DfE after the discovery of the material, and the installation of a number of modular classrooms has been delayed.
Some year groups won’t be able to return to school next week for the start of the school year, while reception and Year Three students will learn in two classrooms deemed safe. The year groups that can’t return will be taught at other local schools by Hockley Primary School teachers, Rochford District Conservative Councillor Eileen Gadsdon told i.
Two primary schools in Bradford have also been identified as containing RAAC.
Crossflatts Primary and Eldwick Primary must close at least eight teaching spaces and other staffing facilities across the two schools, as well as the kitchen at Crossflatts Primary.
Bradford Council said both schools will modify their learning spaces so that all children can still be accommodated on site.
Also reportedly affected is St Gregory’s Catholic Science College, in the London borough of Brent.
St Gregory’s is trying “desperately” to get portable structures in place by Monday morning, when schools are set to return, but help from the DfE has not been quick enough, Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, said.
A statement released Friday by Cockermouth School in Cumbria informed parents that although none of its classrooms were directly affected, RAAC had been found in specific corridors as well as the school’s library and sports hall. The statement continued that in order to plan alternative routes around the premises and avoid the affected areas.
What is reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete?
RAAC is a lightweight, precast, cellular concrete building material made from quartz sand, calcined gypsum, lime, portland cement, water and aluminum powder.
It started being used predominantly in public sector roof construction in the UK and parts of Europe in the 1950s and continued to be used until the 1990s, but the material has been found to have structural issues that means it begins to deteriorate after 40 or 50 years. That means much of the RAAC that remains in British buildings is now at risk of causing a collapse.
Professor Chris Goodier, an expert in construction engineering and materials who led a major national research project on RAAC for the University of Loughborough, explains: “Like many countries, the UK has an old building stock, which needs to be adequately repaired and maintained. In the post-war period the country built numerous new buildings with a variety of different methods, many of which are now feeling their age.
“One innovative construction material and process was RAAC, which is an aerated lightweight cementitious material with no coarse aggregate; the material properties and structural behaviour therefore differs significantly from ‘traditional’ reinforced concrete.
“Tens of thousands of these structural panels exist across a broad cross-section of buildings, many constructed in the 60s and 70s, and many are showing signs of wear and tear and deterioration. The vast majority form the roof of the structure, usually flat, and hence are difficult to access, survey, maintain and replace.”
A report published in May 2019 highlighted the significant risk of failure of these planks and in September last year the Government sent a notice to relevant property owners stating that “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse”.
Professor Goodier said it is RAAC “from the 50s, 60s and 70s that is of main concern, especially if it has not been adequately maintained”.
“RAAC examples have been found with bearings (supports) which aren’t big enough, and RAAC with the steel reinforcement in the wrong place, both of which can have structural implications. Prolonged water ingress (not uncommon on old flat roofs) can also lead to deterioration,” he said.
However, not all RAAC is dangerous by nature. It is s still manufactured and installed all over the world and can be an appropriate construction material if properly designed, manufactured, installed, and maintained.