NEU members in England will have been shocked and furious to hear the Government’s last-minute announcement about school closures. The situation is still unfolding, and we cannot advise at national level what should be happening in all circumstances, but here is a summary of what we know so far and what you should check in respect of your own school.
What is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete RAAC?
A type of bubbly, porous concrete, weaker than traditional concrete and prone to sudden collapse. It was widely used from the 1950s to the mid 1990s in schools and other public buildings.
Why has it suddenly become a problem?
Because the Government has ignored this ticking time bomb for far too long. It has known about the RAAC risk of collapse since at least 2018 when a roof collapsed at a Kent primary school. And in any case RAAC was known to have a life span of only 30 years so even RAAC used in the early 1990s is now time expired.
As far as we know, the situation which triggered the sudden announcement about school closures on 31 August was linked to a beam collapse, without any prior signs of deterioration.
How can I find out if my school is affected?
Since the start of this year the NEU, working with our sister education unions, has been pressing the DfE to release a list of schools affected by RAAC.
On 31 August, 104 schools were contacted by the DfE and told to close in whole or in part due to RAAC. Further schools and colleges have since been identified with RAAC and are being / have been surveyed and mitigations put in place. An updated list of 214 schools and colleges with confirmed cases of RAAC (up from 173) was published on 16 October.
It is not clear how much longer the disruption will continue for affected pupils and staff. Contracts for temporary classrooms are set to run for several years but the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was tight-lipped about whether this meant that the RAAC crisis would extend for a similar period of time when asked by NEU General Secretary Daniel Kebede at a meeting with the education unions on 18 September.
Essex is by far and away the worst hit local authority with 63 schools with confirmed RAAC. The worst hit constituencies are: Harwich and North Essex, Saffron Walden, Witham, Clacton, and South Basildon and East Thurrock.
The Secretary of State has still not answered the six important questions the NEU and other unions asked at the beginning of September:
- How many schools at risk of RAAC have not had an investigation?
- How many schools suspect they could have RAAC?
- How many schools with suspected RAAC have yet to be surveyed?
- How long does the Government expect it to take for all at-risk schools to be investigated?
- How long does the Government think it will take for all schools with suspected RAAC to be surveyed?
- What deadline has been set to clear RAAC from every school?
What is NEU advice where it is not known whether a school contains RAAC or not?
- If it’s not clear to staff whether your school contains RAAC or not, request an urgent update from management. We expect all schools to be open and transparent about sharing the available information. Health and safety reps have the legal right to be provided with this information and should be consulted. If your school doesn’t have a NEU health and safety rep, now is the time to appoint one.
- All responsible bodies, ie LAs/Trusts/Dioceses, were asked to complete a DfE questionnaire about suspected RAAC. Was the questionnaire completed for your school?
- If the questionnaire has not been completed, this needs to happen immediately. Let your branch know if your school hasn’t yet completed the questionnaire. Very few schools have still yet to complete the questionnaire so now is the time to make sure your school is not an outlier.
- Was RAAC suspected following completion of the questionnaire? If so, has the DfE been in touch since, or is the responsible body accessing expert advice locally?
- Where RAAC is suspected but not confirmed, this is the guidance that should be followed by schools. Where there is any degree of uncertainty, a building surveyor/structural engineer will need to confirm one way or the other whether RAAC is present. Is this being actioned? What is the contingency plan if RAAC is confirmed? In the meantime, ask to be provided with a copy of the risk assessment in place to cover this situation and make sure it’s shared with all staff.
- Don't try to identify the material yourself. Head teachers should not be expected to do this either.
- If buildings/estate management staff suspect the presence of RAAC then a qualified building surveyor/structural engineer needs to be involved. The DfE states that once the RAAC questionnaire has been completed, settings with suspected RAAC will be brought forward for surveying and that they ‘hope to have all schools currently suspected as containing RAAC surveyed in a matter of weeks’ and that if it is confirmed, they ‘will ensure appropriate rapid action is taken. This could include providing funding to remove any immediate risks and, where necessary, arranging temporary buildings to be put in place.’
Please contact your branch if information is not being shared, if you are not happy with responses to the questions above, or if you are worried there is imminent danger. Please also keep your branch informed about what’s happening in your school. In the current absence of a national picture from the Government, it is important that we seek to build up local pictures.
What is NEU advice where RAAC is confirmed?
If RAAC is already confirmed in your school, this is the DfE guidance that should be followed. Schools have been told by DfE to vacate and restrict access to the spaces with RAAC and ensure that they are out of use. If this hasn’t happened, seek urgent support from your branch.
If your school is partly or fully closed because RAAC is confirmed, ask where the RAAC is, and ask for the risk assessment covering working arrangements for the rest of the building and for any other temporary premises being brought into use.
DfE guidance on installing temporary buildings on schools sites affected by RAAC is available here.
Ask if your school also contains asbestos. If it does contain asbestos (and it is very likely that any building containing RAAC will also contain asbestos because both materials were being used in school construction at the same time) then ask how this will be managed when remedial work is undertaken. If you are worried, contact the health and safety officer/secretary from your branch.
School Building Safety Petition
Our schools are crumbling. To help press the case for investment, the union has launched a petition calling for the spending increase and greater transparency in how the Government deals with the problem of crumbling schools.
Underfunding of schools: Call for evidence
The situation with RAAC is a national scandal.
But we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Heads, teachers and support staff are struggling every day with inadequate school buildings and lack of resources. Our students are losing out.
So, the National Education Union is opening a call for evidence to help us pressure the Government over the urgent need for extra funding for schools – and we need your help.
We need you to submit your examples – using photos, video, or just text – of any problems you’ve encountered with the state of your school (structural problems such as leaking roofs or collapsing ceilings, classrooms overcrowded, buildings too hot or too cold, insufficient learning resources such as sports, science or cooking spaces/equipment etc).
We will anonymise all submissions unless you tell us you are happy to go public. We will use the evidence on social media, in communications with members and to lobby politicians to pledge the additional funds our schools desperately need.
What about Ofsted?
This term Ofsted will avoid inspecting any education setting that is on the published list of those affected by RAAC. Settings will be removed from scheduling and will not be selected for inspection during the term.
Some settings are not on the list but are still impacted by RAAC in some way – for example, hosting pupils from schools that have RAAC. Ofsted have updated their deferrals guidance to make clear that they will consider disruption as a result of measures taken to deal with RAAC, when looking at inspection deferral.
What is NEU doing at national level?
- We have written a joint letter to the Secretary of State with five other sister education unions urging Government to publish much more comprehensive data on schools affected by RAAC. The letter seeks firm commitments to properly fund all mitigation costs, boost investment to restore our crumbling school estate and set a clear deadline for when all schools will be cleared of RAAC. You can read the joint letter and our press statement here.
- We will continue to urge the Government, and lobbying opposition parties, to commit to reverse the swingeing cuts to capital spending which have left schools in such a dire state of repair. As of 2021 schools in England faced a repair bill of an estimated £11.4bn, according to a DfE survey, the Condition of School Buildings Survey. By June 2023 the National Audit Office report Condition of School Buildings found that “following years of underinvestment, the estate’s overall condition is declining and around 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that the responsible body or DfE believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment.” RAAC isn’t the only problem. Many buildings containing RAAC will also contain asbestos, making it more difficult to safely remove RAAC and meaning that the consequences of a collapse are even more serious.
- In the light of the Education Secretary’s failure to provide a substantive response to our joint letter, the NEU has now written, jointly with other unions and the National Governance Association, to the Prime Minister to demand a satisfactory answer including an increase in the schools capital funding budget up to £7bn. This is the level calculated by the Office of Government Property required to maintain the school estate in line with best practice each year. The Government is currently spending just over a third of this amount.
The NEU has developed a tool for health and safety reps to check the safety of their school buildings to highlight to management the areas of the school which pose a safety risk so they can be prioritised for remediation.