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School Raac concrete crisis: 7 questions from parents answered by expert as government list affected schools

Schools Week editor John Dickens tackled questions on homeschooling, further closures, contingency plans and more

Wednesday 06 September 2023 13:53 BST
Pupils have been relocated as a result of the issue (Yui Mok/PA)
Pupils have been relocated as a result of the issue (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

As schools return for a new year this week, hundreds have been caught up in a concrete crisis.

More than 150 schools have reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) - which is now deemed life expired and liable to collapse.

Just over 100 have had to close parts or all of their buildings this week.

And this is just the start. Around 1,000 schools are still to check if they have the material in their buildings. They’ve been told to ‘get off their backsides’ by the education secretary Gillian Keegan and fill in the government survey by the end of this week.

However another 450 schools with suspected Raac are also waiting for government engineer assessments - so the list will only grow.

Ministers have now published the full list of schools affected as they come under increasing pressure over why they have let buildings deteriorate to the brink of collapse.

During an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session for The Independent, Schools Week editor John Dickens tackled a wide range of questions from parents worried about their child’s school.

Here are the questions answered by him:

Q: How likely is it that more schools will have to close?

A: It is almost certain more schools will have to close. 156 schools so far have confirmed Raac. There are 22,000 schools in England - so it is fewer than 1%.

However, many hundreds of schools have yet to do proper checks. Also around 400 schools that have suspected Raac are still waiting on a visit from a government engineer for an official assessment.

Should your school have to close because it turns out it has Raac, you should hear this first directly from your school. The government delayed publishing a full list of schools so headteachers had enough time to inform parents.

However, should your child’s school find out they have Raac, it is likely any closure would be immediate.

The new guidance from government is that any school building containing Raac must close immediately. As this advice changed just last week - many schools have not had time to put in place mitigation plans.

So some may be able to enact mitigation plans straight away without any disruption. But others who have yet to draw up a plan may be forced to close buildings and enforce home learning while they put a plan together

Q: How will I know if my child’s school is closed? Will this be confirmed in the Government list or could there be even more schools affected?

A: If your child’s school is closed, you should have been informed by your headteacher. One of the reasons the government held off publishing a full list of the affected schools is because they wanted to give schools time to contact parents first.

They want parents to hear this information first from the school, rather than in the media.

If you haven’t heard anything from your school, that is likely because it is not affected. So far, just 156 schools have confirmed Raac. There are 22,000 schools in England - so it is fewer than 1%.

However, many hundreds of schools have yet to do proper checks. Also around 400 schools that have suspected Raac are still waiting on a visit from a government engineer for an official assessment. So this number will definitely increase.

But that shouldn’t change things - if your child’s school is affected, you should hear about it first from your school.

Q: What are my rights in terms of keeping my child at home? Is there any support available for homeschooling or can I look at moving my child to a new school?

A: Despite the disruption, the government expects most pupils and students will be able to remain on the roll of their existing education setting, even if they are in emergency or longer-term temporary accommodation on a different school site.

If you are unhappy with the provision being provided, my advice would be to first of all contact the school and speak to them about it.

Given many schools now have better set ups for home learning, that might be an option they could provide should you wish - however that is obviously totally up to the school. And also bear in mind while this is causing a lot of disruption for you, it is also a nightmare for the school too, who are most likely doing their very best for their pupils in a very difficult situation.

If you kept your child off school without authorisation, this would be classed as an unauthorised absence and you could end up being fined.

As a parent you have the right to home school or move your child to another school.

There is no extra funding or support for home schooling, though. And any decision to do this should be well-throught through first, because should the school fill your child’s place you might struggle to get them back at the same school.

Government guidance states if an individual parent wants to permanently move their child to a different school, they should make an in-year application through existing admissions processes. For all mainstream state-funded schools, any move from one school to another must be done in line with the statutory School Admissions Code and wider admissions law.

Q: Is there a way to know if a school has responded to the survey?

A: No that information is not currently in the public domain. It’s taken a lot of pressure from media just to get government to admit how many schools are yet to respond to the survey (is currently 5% of schools - so roughly 1,000). Another 400 have responded and have suspected Raac, but are awaiting a government engineer to visit and assess the school.

The survey has been live since March last year, and the government has repeated its call for schools to fill this in - so I understand why there is some frustation on their behalf.

However the severity with which they are now classifying Raac has been dramatically escalated just last week, so the situation has changed massively. I expect most schools will fill it in within the next few days.

Q: Do you think there’s been a marked change to upkeep of schools since 2010, when the Tory government took over?

A: It’s a fact that less money is now spent on capital funding to rebuild schools since the Conservatives came into power in 2010. Labour’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future scheme promised to rebuild every secondary school by this year. Michael Gove scrapped that when he became education secretary in 2010.

There were some valid reasons for doing it - the scheme was incredibly costly and had lots of issues.

However that scale of funding in the school estate was not replaced. It means schools have not had adequate funding to keep their schools in good condition. And the little cash that is available now goes to schools in a terrible state of disrepair to cover up emerging problems, rather than on maintainence

Q: Why is Raac is on the radar now? What sparked the concern in schools in the first place?

A: Raac has been known about as potentially problematic for many years. But it really came onto the map in 2018 when a Kent primary school roof collapsed.

The material has a 30-40 year shelf life and is now deemed ‘liable to collapse’.

The government’s approach last year was to ask schools to identify where they think they have Raac, and they would confirm it with an engineer. The engineer would rate the Raac based on its condition from low risk (if it wasn’t deteriorating) to critical (if it was showing signs of disrepair). Only those schools with critical Raac had to close and repairs were done.

What changed over the summer was the government said three cases came to light where Raac that was low risk collapsed. This caused them to massively escalate their policy - and last week they introduced their new approach which was that schools with Raac in any condition must close. That is what has caused the panic - as it was communicated to schools totally out the blue and with just a few days until the new school year

Q: Are there any contingency plans in place for schools that are affected?

A: All schools have now been told to have contingency plans in place should they have Raac. However this was only communicated to schools last week - which is why those that do have Raac have been caught off guard.

The new policy is that any building containing Raac must close. For the majority of schools, this will be just a few buildings and they will be able to continue on their school site.

However many may have to squeeze pupils into any available space while they sort out more permanent temporary accommodation. We’ve heard of one school teaching pupils in the headteacher’s office!

Those schools that don’t have mitigation plans in place might have had to enact remote learning while they come up with a plan - but even in this case, guidance states vulnerable children should be prioritised for on-site provision. And remote learning should be kept to a minimum with pupils returned to school as soon as possible.

These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by John Dickens.

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for this article. You can read the full discussion in the comments section of the original article.

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