More than 100 schools, nurseries and colleges in England have been ordered to close classrooms and buildings that contain a type of concrete that is prone to collapse, with some forced to shut completely.
With just days to go until pupils return from summer holidays, schools across the country have been told to immediately shut buildings with aerated concrete, meaning thousands of pupils could start the term online.
Some schools have even been told they will need to close entirely, needing to “either fully or partially relocate” to alternative accommodation while safety measures are installed, as teaching unions slammed the situation as “nothing short of a scandal.”
Bradford Council confirmed that at least eight teaching spaces at Crossflatts Primary and Eldwick Primary had closed, with the National Audit Office (NAO) assessing the risk of injury or death from the collapse of a school building as “very likely and critical.”
RAAC is a lightweight building material used in schools, colleges and other building construction between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, but has since been assessed to be at risk of collapse.
“Following careful analysis of new cases, the department is taking the precautionary and proactive step to change its approach to RAAC in education settings, including schools”, a DfE statement read.
“This decision has been made with an abundance of caution and to prioritise safety of children, pupils, and staff ahead of the start of the new term.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats alleged that 37 schools in Scotland are constructed with this concrete, with a spokesperson adding that the situation is the “result of years of Conservative neglect.”
“Parents, teachers and pupils will be horrified that children have been taught in unsafe buildings and cannot return to school next week”, Munira Wilson said, adding that the Liberal Democrats would “urgently” remove RAAC “where it is a risk to life.”
Education secretary Gillian Keegan said telling schools to vacate areas containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is “the right thing to do for both pupils and staff”, insisting the plans would “minimise the impact on pupil learning.”
“Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term,” Ms Keegan said in a statement.
“We must take a cautious approach because that is the right thing to do for both pupils and staff.
“The plan we have set out will minimise the impact on pupil learning and provide schools with the right funding and support they need to put mitigations in place to deal with RAAC.”
Meanwhile, the Children’s Commissioner called for “clear direction” over where pupils should go, urging that “lessons from the pandemic” must be learnt and proper communication had with impacted families.
“After years of disruption for children and young people, what they need most is stability and getting back to normal”, Dame Rachel de Souza said.
“Everything must now be done to ensure the impact on children’s learning is minimised. And it is particularly important that everyone working with children prioritises those who are vulnerable and those with additional needs.”
Unison public service union’s head of education labelled the situation “nothing short of a scandal”, warning that waiting until the “eleventh hour” will create “turmoil.”
“The DfE and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings”, Mike Short said.
“The schools minister even broke his own promise to publish information about at-risk properties before parliament’s summer recess.
“To wait until the eleventh hour as schools are preparing for a new academic year will create turmoil for thousands of families. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, described the news as “shocking”, but “not hugely surprising.”
“What we are seeing here are the very real consequences of a decade of swingeing cuts to spending on school buildings,” Mr Whiteman said.
“The government is right to put the safety of pupils and staff first – if the safety of buildings cannot be guaranteed, there is no choice but to close them so urgent building work can take place.
“But there is no escaping the fact that the timing of this couldn’t be worse, with children due to return from the summer holidays next week.”
Elsewhere, Association of School and College Leaders policy director Julie McCulloch accused the government of being too slow to respond.
“The danger of structural failure in school buildings where this type of concrete was used in construction has been known since at least 2018”, Ms McCulloch said.
“The Department for Education’s own annual report last year identified the condition of school buildings as one of six ‘significant risks’ it was managing, describing this risk as ‘critical – very likely’ and ‘worsening’.
“It has taken the government far too long to act on a risk of this seriousness.”