Sisters of Mercy step in to house Sunderland Catholic pupils who had to abandon Raac-hit school

Dozens of schools faced huge disruption at the end of the summer holidays when Raac – a potentially unsafe, crumbling concrete – was discovered in their buildings. But there is some Christmas cheer for at least one that has faced a term like no other.

St John Bosco RC Primary, in Sunderland, had to abandon its site when Raac – reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – was found there.

Staff and pupils were then welcomed at a convent in the city.

Lianne Peart, the school’s head teacher, remembers discovering they had become a school without a building.

“I remember sitting on 31 August with the staff and [seeing] sheer terror in everybody’s eyes.

“[It was] just a lot of additional things to think about when school life is already challenging.”

But then came a form of what you could call divine intervention. Sunderland’s Sisters of Mercy nuns’ order offered up Gabriel House, an empty part of their convent.

It was a shell, but within a week it was transformed and able to house the majority of the children.

There were huge challenges though. It had no kitchen or toilets and was miles away from the school.

Daily buses for the children had to be arranged, portable toilets ordered and 200 meals a day brought in from a nearby secondary school canteen.

Although the youngest children are being housed on the site of another school, Gabriel House now feels like home from home for everyone else.

Parent and governor Karen Shek said: “Mrs Peart and the staff have worked wonders.”

“It’s not a building that makes a school, it’s the staff and the pupils that make the school.”

The children have also struck up a strong relationship with the nuns.

Their end-of-term Christmas concert in the convent chapel was one way the pupils thanked their landlords.

But the Sisters of Mercy say no thank you is needed.

Reverend Mother Sister Adrienne said: “Nobody could have envisaged this, but it has been a huge blessing for us as well as for them.

“We love having them around. They fill us with joy with their singing and their running around the garden.”

Sister Josepha said: “In the nativity there’s always someone who knocks on the door and goes, ‘there’s no room at the inn’.

“It was great because we actually had the room and it was a joy to be able to say ‘yes’ in their hour of need.”

Staff at St John Bosco say they have had good support from the government, but not every school has fared as well.

Last month in parliament, Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy raised problems at St Leonard’s Catholic School in her City of Durham constituency.

In a Commons debate she said pupils were struggling with a lack of specialist facilities such as science labs, and extra expenditure of £450,000 by the school had yet to be refunded.

Labour’s shadow schools minister, Catherine McKinnell, says sites she has visited are finding government help slow to arrive.

“They’re in Portakabins, they’re split across temporary buildings and arrangements.

“They need to know the end is in sight and they need the Department of Education to step up urgently and provide that clarity of either rebuilds of refurbishments.”

The government says progress is being made.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The safety of staff and pupils is paramount and we have been working at pace with schools to identify Raac and support them to minimise disruption.

“We are working closely to ensure the best possible education for pupils and are taking every step possible to remove any obstacles to learning through temporary accommodation and use of specialist facilities in off-site accommodation.”

Back at the convent, head teacher Mrs Peart adds: “The Sisters threw a blanket of love around us and the children have got so much from being alongside them.”

Although there will be relief for staff and pupils when they return to their home, it will also be a sad day for landlords and tenants as the unprecedented crisis has created an unexpected bond.