Over 100 UK schools close buildings due to fears of crumbling aerated concrete

Close up of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete
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As many as 104 schools and colleges containing an aerated concrete prone to collapse have been ordered not to reopen buildings this coming term. The Tory government stated on 3 September that it will “do what it takes” to ensure pupils’ safety. However, Rishi Sunak is now denying that he cut funding to relevant repair programs back when he was finance minister.

Reinforced Autoclaved Concrete

The building material in question is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). It’s known for being cheap and lightweight, and was widely used in parts of building construction across Britain between the 1950s and 1990s. However, the concerns around RAAC’s risk of collapse came to a head in 2018. That year, the roof of a primary school in Kent collapsed without warning.

More than 50 other education sites have already been forced to put “mitigations in place” this year due to the presence of RAAC. Structural experts have warned it is likely to be found within many other sites as well. These include hospitals, courts, and some public housing. All may also have to close for remedial works.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt told Sky News that officials had initiated a “huge survey” of every single school in the country to identify where RAAC is in place. To make matters worse, the Sunday Times reported that experts have warned asbestos could be exposed in the schools affected by the crumbling concrete. This would result in many being shut for months.

‘Sat on their arse’

Education officials, public sector unions, and the opposition hit out at the government’s handling of the issue. In particular, they highlighted the short notice given to schools ahead of the new term.

England’s children’s commissioner Rachel De Souza told the BBC:

I am extremely disappointed and frustrated that there was not a plan in place for this happening,” .

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There should have been planning in place and a really good school building programme that has addressed this over the years.”

Meanwhile, education secretary Gillian Keegan apologised for saying she had “done a fucking good job” tackling the problem. She also claimed that “everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing”. The comments were caught on camera after a television interview on the subject. She said the remarks were “off the cuff” and her language was “choice” and “unnecessary”.

Forewarned is forearmed…

It also transpired that officials weren’t unaware of this looming child safety scandal. The Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures UK organisation has repeatedly warned in reports that RAAC planks are present in many types of UK buildings. It also noted that the “useful life” of such planks has been estimated to be around 30 years.

On 4 September, Rishi Sunak rejected allegations that he cut a school refurbishment program despite knowing about the risks of the concrete used in their construction. A top former top official at the ministry made the claim that he shelved a request for funding to rebuild more schools when he was finance minister.

Senior civil servant at the DfE Jonathan Slater said up to 400 schools a year needed to be replaced by the department. However, it only got funding for 100. Sunak told BBC radio that back in 2021, money was only made available for 50. He also insisted that Slater was “completely and utterly wrong”. According to the prime minister, the number was in line with policy over the previous decade.

The PM also attempted to play down the extent of the problem of RAAC use. He claimed that 95% of the total of about 22,000 English schools were unaffected by the issue. However, this of course means that hundreds more schools could be affected.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Marco Bernardini, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, resized to 1910*1000. 

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