Ministers have been accused of “incompetence” for ordering more than 100 schools and colleges in England to make closures over a concrete prone to collapse – just as pupils and students prepare to return from their summer break.
The Department for Education (DfE) said a minority of the state facilities may have to move completely while safety measures against the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) are installed.
Guidance to shut affected buildings was issued this week to 104 schools, school nurseries and colleges – which have been told they will have to fund their own emergency accommodation.
Unions and opposition parties have criticised the Government for failing to take action sooner, with pupils hit by renewed disruption as they are about to start the autumn term.
The DfE said it contacted the schools in the wake of analysis of new cases after 52 of the 156 educational settings containing the concrete took protective steps so far this year.
The department said a “minority” will need to “either fully or partially relocate” to alternative accommodation while safety measures are installed.
But its guidance to schools said funding will only be provided for works that are “capital funded” and schools will have to pay for rental costs for emergency or temporary accommodation.
Today we’ve published new guidance for education settings impacted by Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC).
Here’s everything you need to know about RAAC and how we’re supporting schools and colleges to manage it safely ⬇️https://t.co/3ZaKz89MtK
— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) August 31, 2023
Space in nearby schools, community centres or in an “empty local office building” was recommended for the “first few weeks” while buildings are secured with structural supports.
Schools were told moving to pandemic-style remote education should only be considered as a “last resort and for a short period”.
The National Education Union criticised the Government for expecting schools to pay additional costs for its “shocking neglect of school buildings”.
General secretary Daniel Kebede said: “It is absolutely disgraceful, and a sign of gross Government incompetence, that a few days before the start of term, 104 schools are finding out that some or all of their buildings are unsafe and cannot be used.
“To add insult to injury the Government states in its guidance that it will not be covering the costs of emergency temporary accommodation or additional transport.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan insisted that a “cautious approach … is the right thing to do for both pupils and staff”.
“Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term,” she said.
“The plan we have set out will 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.”
Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said there must be “clear direction” on where children are meant to study and reassurance that the sites are “safe and suitable”.
“After years of disruption for children and young people, what they need most is stability and getting back to normal,” she said.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the “timing of this couldn’t be worse”.
“What we are seeing here are the very real consequences of a decade of swingeing cuts to spending on school buildings,” he said.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson hit out at an “absolutely staggering display of Tory incompetence”.
“Dozens of England’s schools are at risk of collapse with just days before children crowd their corridors. Ministers have been content to let this chaos continue for far too long,” she said.
“It’s long past time the Secretary of State got a grip on her department.”
The Local Government Association said ministers had left schools and councils with “very little time to make urgent rearrangements and minimise disruption to classroom learning”.
Association of School and College Leaders policy director Julie McCulloch said the “scramble” to take action ahead of the return to schools was vital but “hugely disruptive”.
“It has taken the Government far too long to act on a risk of this seriousness,” she said.
The Unison public service union’s head of education Mike Short said the “situation is nothing short of a scandal” and will “create turmoil for thousands of families”.
“The DfE and Government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings,” he said.
The DfE said it will not be disclosing how many schools will be told to close completely.
RAAC is a lightweight building material used up to the mid-1980s but now assessed to be at risk of collapse.