Image source, Getty Images
By Hazel Shearing
Thousands of pupils in England face disruption after more than 100 schools, colleges and nurseries were told to shut buildings with concrete prone to collapse until safety work was done.
School leaders 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”.
At Willowbank Mead Primary in Leicester, where arrangements have been made for children from different year groups to attend two different schools, while older pupils will have to use online learning, the head teacher said in a letter to parents: “I appreciate that the timing is far from ideal.”
It is one of many schools affected 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 told parents: “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”.
Media caption, Watch: Education secretary tells parents not to worry and shares more details about how schools were identified
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.
Kenneth Hope’s 11-year-old daughter was due to begin her secondary education at Ferryhill School in Ferryhill, County Durham, on 5 September.
But the school has informed the family that it would not be open until 11 September.
Kenneth, who has six children, is not happy about the short notice which has put them in a “difficult position”.
“My daughter just wants to get there, she’s been a bit apprehensive about starting secondary school,” he said.
There are more than 20,000 schools in England.
Two primary schools in Bradford – Crossflatts and Eldwick – are among those affected, with parts closed to pupils after the concrete was identified, the council said.
Shazad Ismail’s son, Yahya, is about to go into Year 5 at Crossflatts. Part of one building has been closed and yellow temporary classrooms have been built days before the start of term.
Image source, BBC/ Ed Lawrence
Image caption, Nine-year-old Yahya is a pupil at an affected school
“We’re devastated,” Mr Ismail told the BBC.
“The head teacher sent a letter… it’s going to widely affect a lot of children.”
Image source, BBC / Ed Lawrence
Image caption, Temporary classrooms are being built at Crossflats schools
Pupils at Mistley Norman primary school in Manningtree, Essex, will learn at another school for “as long as required”, said Emma Wigmore, CEO of the Vine Schools Trust. Pupils have been taught in classrooms at another school in north Essex since April.
Ms Wigmore said five families had now chosen to find new school places this year.
Phil Cato, a parent in Chelmsford, found out on Thursday that his children could not return to school until mid-September at the earliest and would need to learn remotely in the meantime.
“Why didn’t the DfE put plans in place over the summer break in order to mitigate against any disruption?” he asked.
He said the government was “failing our children who will now have to home school not long after the pandemic”.
Corpus Christi Catholic School in Brixton, south London has temporarily relocated some pupils.
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.
Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Munira Wilson said “pupil safety is paramount but for this to come out just days before term starts is totally unacceptable”.
The government says it has been aware of RAAC in public sector buildings, including schools, since 1994.
It said it has advised schools to have “adequate contingencies” in place since 2018, in case affected buildings needed to be evacuated.
The Welsh government has said it will survey the country’s schools and colleges to check if any are made with RAAC.
Numerous public buildings have been identified as being at risk because of RAAC, including schools, hospitals and police stations.
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