Government under fire as more than 100 schools in England to shut over concrete safety fears

Thousands of pupils in England face disruption after more than 100 schools, colleges and nurseries have been told to shut buildings with concrete prone to collapse until safety work was done. School leaders have described this as a “scramble” coming only days before the start of the new term.

Some pupils will learn remotely, in temporary classrooms, or in different schools.

The government said the move followed “new evidence” on the concrete.

Schools with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) must introduce new safety measures, which could include propping up ceilings.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the government was taking a “cautious approach”, adding that “over the summer a couple of cases have given us cause for concern”.

Governemt sources have said that 104 schools have been notified of the problem, after the Department for Education (DfE) announced on Thursday that any space or area in schools, colleges or nurseries, with confirmed RAAC should no longer be open without “mitigations” being put in place.

It has not given a timeline for replacing the RAAC, or named the places affected.

This came after the government was made aware of a number of incidents where RAAC failed without warning, not just in school buildings, but elsewhere too.

Ms Keegan said the government would publish a list of the affected schools but did not say when.

She said affected schools will be contacting parents, adding: “If you don’t hear, don’t worry.”

Earlier, she said the plan would “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”.

The risk of injury or death from a school building collapse was said to be “very likely and critical” by the watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) in June, after it highlighted concerns for school buildings that still contained RAAC.

This is a lightweight “bubbly” form of concrete used widely between the 1950s and mid-1990s – usually in the form of panels on flat roofs, as well as occasionally in pitched roofs, floors and walls. It has a lifespan of around 30 years.

While the vast majority of schools and colleges will be unaffected by this announcement, the NAO report identified 572 schools where this concrete might be present.

There are 156 settings in England with confirmed RAAC, according to DfE data. Of those, 52 already had safety mitigations in place, and 104 were being contacted this week about getting them in place.

The DfE said it sent a questionnaire to schools in 2022, asking if they had any confirmed or suspected cases of RAAC in their buildings. If schools provided a positive response, this was then confirmed by DfE-commissioned engineers.

Corpus Christi Catholic School, in Brixton is one of the affected schools, and will temporarily relocate 200 students at the start of the new school year, while remedial work is carried out on the roof.

All Key Stage 2 students from Corpus Christi will attend classes at St Martin-in-the-Fields Girls School whilst further work is undertaken to assess the use of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) found in the roof.

The move began last week in time for the children to begin their new school year on 4th September.

Councillor Ben Kind, Cabinet Member for Children and Families said: “Lambeth Council is committed to ensuring the safety of pupils at Corpus Christi and we are grateful to the school for working with us as we help relocate them temporarily to a new site and to the parents of pupils at the school for their support and understanding as we all work to minimise disruption.

By taking this step the school can continue to ensure the pupils well-being while further work is done to assess the extent to any problems with the materials used when the school was built.’

Rest assured that Lambeth Council has been working together with the Department for Education and Corpus Christi school to ensure a coordinated approach is taken to ensure the impact on learning is minimised.

We are aware that the DfE is undertaking a wider assessment of the use of this type of concrete in schools across England and we will continue to work with them in that regard. I encourage parents of pupils at Corpus Christi School who have further queries to directly contact the school.”

Before the summer, St Bartholomew’s Catholic Primary School’s hall in Swanley, Kent was identified as containing RAAC.

The school’s headteacher told parents in a letter she had hoped the necessary works would be carried out during the holidays.

“Unfortunately, despite the school’s best efforts, this has not been possible,” the head teacher wrote.

“RAAC is only isolated to the school hall which continues to be closed.

“The rest of the school is safe and operating as usual. Hot lunches will be prepared in the school kitchen and served in classrooms.”

Other Catholic schools so far announced as affected include Holy Trinity Catholic Academy, Newark-on-Trent and St Gregory’s Catholic Science College, Harrow.

The announcement has been widely criticised as the government is said to have been aware of the problem more than five years ago. The Local Government Association said it had been warning about the risk of RAAC since 2018.

“Leaving this announcement until near the end of the summer holidays, rather than at the beginning, has left schools and councils with very little time to make urgent rearrangements and minimise disruption to classroom learning,” said Cllr Kevin Bentley, its senior vice-chairman.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents mostly head teachers, said the government had “failed to invest sufficiently in the school estate” and called the announcement a “scramble”.

She said it was “clearly vital”, but “the actions these schools will need to take will be hugely disruptive, and this will obviously be worrying for pupils, families and staff”.

“The government should have put in place a programme to identify and remediate this risk at a much earlier stage,” she added.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson accused the government of “still not being up front” over its decision to shut school buildings in England.

She called on the government to “come clean to parents” and publish the full list of schools affected by the announcement.

Following the furore, the Welsh Conservatives have urgently called for a review of at-risk schools in Wales. ‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​

Laura Anne Jones MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Minister, stated that the safety concern surrounding RAAC is serious and any risk of injury to children in Wales is completely unacceptable. ‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​

Jones urged the Wales’ Education Minister, Jeremy Miles to urgently review the situation, following the move by the UK Government to identify at-risk school buildings. ‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​

“The safety of children is paramount; the Welsh Government must act quickly,” she said. ‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​

The Welsh Government is yet to comment on RAAC in Welsh schools. ‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌​

Story by William Kelly, The Catholic Network