The issue of RAAC has been affecting the Kent area since 2018. A roof collapse on 7 July 2018 occurred at Singlewell Primary School in Gravesend after reports a day earlier of structural stress. This sudden collapse and subsequent appraisal by structural engineers raised alarm bells, with a Kent County Council (KCC) spokesperson telling Kent Online, “It was the first reported case of RAAC.”
RAAC stands for Reinforced Aerated Autoclaved Concrete (RAAC) and the use of this building material from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s has led to the disruption of 154 schools across the UK so far, with more likely to be affected as questionnaires sent by the Department for Education (DfE) continue to be returned. The government has yet to release a list of schools affected but Schoosl Minister, Nick Gibb, told Sky News it would be published “in due course.”
RAAC is a cheap and lightweight building material (often described as bubbly) used primarily in the construction of walls, floors, and flat roofs, and has been found to have limited durability with an expected lifespan of only 30 years. Furthermore, it is vulnerable to structural decay and failure, exacerbated when exposed to water damage. While this limited durability has always been recognised, recent more serious events have accelerated worries and led to the recognition that RAAC may be more problematic than first thought.
Five schools closed in Kent
The issue by the DfE resulted in the closure/altered teaching arrangements of five schools in Kent earlier this summer, with concerns over RAAC used in the roofs of all five schools.
- Birchington Church of England Primary, near Westgate-on-Sea, (Voluntary Controlled)
- Sunnybank Primary in Sittingbourne (Academy)
- Palmarsh Primary in Hythe (community school, sometimes called local authority-maintained schools)
- St James’ Church of England School in Tunbridge Wells,
- Godinton Primary, at Lockholt Close in Ashford (Academy)
All five have now reopened.
Other schools affected
Recent schools affected in the Kent area include:
- King Ethelbert Secondary School, Thanet (Academy)
- St Bartholomew’s Catholic Primary School, Swanley (Voluntary Aided)
While this is concerning with the nearing start of the new school term, both schools remain open. The headteacher of St Bartholomew’s Catholic Primary School, has stated that, while the hall is shut, the rest of the school is safe and “lunches will be prepared in the school kitchens and served in classrooms.”
Kent County Council has confirmed that all schools under their responsibility with a medium and high risk have been thoroughly inspected with inspections continuing on low-risk sites currently. Kent City Council has also offered support to schools that fall outside their responsibility such as academies and voluntary aided schools.
The DofE has stated it is working to ensure that there is “minimal disruption to education and that the vast majority [of schools] will remain open for face-to-face learning from the start of term.” It has also stated that all affected schools will be assigned a dedicated DfE caseworker, who will help assess the site’s needs and put solutions in place.
Parents will be contacted directly if there is a change to the start of term.
Department acted too slowly
However, the DfE has also been criticised for not acting quickly enough to address the risks posed by RAAC made clear in 2018, partially by the collapse of the roof at Singlewell Primary School. It was through luck alone that no one was hurt as the roof collapsed at the weekend. While surveys were taken at this time and a national safety warning issued, many say this was not enough. Geoff Wilkinson spoke to the Guardian saying that it was “shocking” there was not an ongoing maintenance plan to upgrade/replace buildings. Nick Gibbs admitted on BBC TODAY the situation had escalated so close to the start of term as a roof made of RAAC previously deemed uncritical had collapsed without warning. This sent hundreds of schools that had previously believed themselves to be low risk to consider the possibility that an incident could happen at any moment.
Treasury blamed for withdrawal of funding
However, another issue which has come into effect is the provision of funding for the necessary repairs to all schools affected by RAAC. The DfE has stated that it will be providing support and funding to schools affected in the form of structural engineers, essential works and, when necessary, the building of temporary teaching spaces. This money will come from the DfE existing capital budget. However, the DfE budget has already been previously stretched to its limits. In 2020 the Department made a request for £4bn a year for risk mitigation and school maintenance; it was only allocated £3.1bn per year until 2025 by the Treasury.
Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union made a statement to Sky News saying it was a “fantasy” that all repair costs would be able to be covered by the current education budget. Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has also been criticised for his decision to implement budget reductions in 2021 (when he was Chancellor) reducing the number of schools to be replaced from between 300 and 400 a year to 100. Jonathan Slater, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education from 2016–2020 called the decision “frustrating.”
Who pays whom?
It also remains unclear who will be responsible for paying for the ongoing property maintenance checks at schools that will be a necessity in the coming weeks, months, and years. Information has been unclear from those in charge. Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, told the BBC that other expenses such as the transport of pupils to new learning locations, and costs incurred for hiring temporary accommodation, will only be considered for extra funding on a case-by-case basis. Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, further stated that it is likely that councils and academy trusts will be forced to pay for these extra costs. However, interviews have been conflicting. Several schools around the country, however, have already stated it’s been made clear to them they will be expected to cover the sky-high costs associated with the RAAC response. Schools of any category will have strict budgets to adhere to and any RAAC expenses which they foot will likely result in budget cuts elsewhere.
Emergency meeting of KCC
Kent County Council held an emergency meeting to address the issue of spending on non-capital costs. They allocated a capped emergency budget of £2.5m, however noted that additional costs present a risk of increased financial pressure. This is after the new budget for 2023–2024 was approved with a 4.995% increase to council tax to address the rising cost of services fuelled by “inflation, market conditions and additional demands on council services from population demographic changes and complexity of need, along with the need to save £55m over the next financial year from spending reductions and increased income to balance the budget.”
It is clear that schools in Kent, while now open, will continue to see the effects of RAAC for years to come.