Special report: Deteriorating school buildings prompt urgent warnings

  • 8th February 2024

A worrying new report lifts the lid on the challenges facing education estates

SpacioTempo has provided a number of temporary buildings for schools with RAAC, including this sports hall and assembly hall for Harris Primary School

Plans to rebuild dilapidated and crumbling schools risk being ‘blown off track’ as the sector struggles with the RAAC crisis and a lack of basic information from the Department for Education (DfE), warns a report published by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Released late last year, the paper warns that the school estate has deteriorated to the point where 700,000 pupils are learning in buildings which need major redevelopment or refurbishment, impacting their learning experiences and ultimately limiting their educational achievements.

And unacceptable numbers of pupils are learning in poorly-maintained or potentially-unsafe buildings, according to the committee’s findings.

The Government’s School Rebuilding Programme (SRP), which is behind its initial schedule for getting schools built, has considered upgrades to 1,200 schools with safety issues or which are in poor condition.

Five hundred schools in total will be selected, but many of the 100 schools still to be named will be chosen due to serious issues with Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC).

Many other schools will therefore not get onto the SRP, even though longer-term assessments of their poor condition would lead to a conclusion that they should be rebuilt.

Understanding the risks

A PAC spokesman said: “We are extremely concerned that DfE does not have a good enough understanding of the risks in school buildings to keep children and staff safe.

“Despite the PAC raising these as concerns for several years, the DfE was unable to tell the inquiry how many surveys to identify RAAC were outstanding, how many temporary classrooms had been provided to schools affected by RAAC, or say when RAAC issues would be addressed.

“There is a lack of certainty on support for schools affected by RAAC, and questions around both the reliability of the DfE’s information on the number and condition and schools affected, and the Government’s attitude to risk with regards to the school estate.”

The PAC is also calling for the DfE to work up a full picture of asbestos across the school estate.

The report found that, as at July 2023, the DfE was unsighted on asbestos in just over 4% of schools.

While this has fallen from 7% at May 2022, this still represents almost 1,000 sites.

And both RAAC and asbestos can be present in the same building, further complicating any works to tackle the issues.

Since 2011, around 11 teachers or ex-teachers have died from asbestos-related conditions each year, Health and Safety Executive data suggests.

The PAC report urges the Government to develop a package of support and good practice, targeted at helping mitigate the negative impact on pupils and teachers of schools that are in poor condition but cannot yet be fixed.

SpacioTempo has also provided a swimming pool for Mary Hare School

Beyond acceptable

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “A significant proportion of children in this country are learning in dilapidated or unsafe buildings.

“This is clearly beyond unacceptable, but overcoming the consequences of this deficit of long-term infrastructure planning will not be easy.

“The School Rebuilding Programme was already struggling to stay on track, and the DfE lacked a mechanism to direct funding to regions which need it most.

“It risks being blown further off course by concerns over RAAC, and many schools in dire need of help will not receive it as a result.”

She added: “The images of classroom ceilings collapsed onto empty school desks released in recent months are not just searing indictments of a deteriorating school estate – they are chilling reminders of absolute catastrophe averted through sheer luck.

“Given the poor condition of so many of these buildings, the Government’s prime challenge now is to keep the safety of children and staff absolutely paramount.”

The PAC report followed an earlier publication, in June last year, of the National Audit Office’s Condition of School Buildings paper.

It revealed that around 24,000 school buildings – 37% of the total – are beyond their estimated initial design life so generally require more maintenance than newer buildings. This included 10,000 buildings constructed before 1940, with an estimated initial design life of 60-80 years; and an estimated 13,800 ‘system-built’ blocks constructed between 1940-1980, with an estimated initial design life of 30-40 years.

And it claimed that the rate of school rebuilding is significantly below what the DfE estimated was required to maintain the school estate.

Report authors predict it would cost £6.7bn to return all school buildings to a satisfactory, or better, condition, with significant risk of major costs arising from further deterioration.

A lack of suitable sites is also hampering development, together with rising construction costs.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The DfE has, since 2021, assessed the risk of school building failure or collapse as critical and very likely, but it has not been able to reduce this risk.

“More widely, it has an ambitious strategy for decarbonising the education estate, but no plan for how it will achieve this or how much it is likely to cost.

“DfE is gathering some of the data it needs to effectively target its resources and it must now use this to improve its understanding of where schools are most at risk so it can balance addressing the most-urgent risks while investing enough in maintenance, reducing carbon emissions, and climate change adaptation measures to achieve its objectives and secure longer-term value for money.”

Here, we explore one of those key issues – the RAAC crisis – in more detail.


What is RAAC?

Reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete (RAAC) is a type of lightweight concrete which, unlike traditional concrete, does not contain gravel and pieces of crushed stone.

It was used in the UK between the 1950s and 1990s, mostly to construct public buildings, such as schools.


Why is it a problem?

Concerns about RAAC use in the UK were first raised in 1996 by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), which found ‘cracking’ and ‘corrosion’ in RAAC roofing panels.

In 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety, an industry body, warned that RAAC planks were ‘past their expected service life’ and warned that roofs with RAAC planks could collapse (PDF).

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors states that RAAC in roofing panels could pose a structural risk, particularly if the RAAC was installed incorrectly or if there are leaks. This is because the porous structure of RAAC allows water to enter, which can cause its internal steel reinforcements to corrode and lead to cracking.

The state of play

There is no comprehensive list of which buildings contain RAAC and to identify whether it was used in a building, surveys need to be carried out.

In December 2018, the DfE advised bodies responsible for schools, such as local authorities, to identify ‘any RAAC property in their portfolio’.

It has also been collecting information on RAAC in schools and last summer RAAC panels in three buildings, which the DfE said would have been judged as ‘non-critical’ on a visual inspection, collapsed.

The department then advised schools to close all spaces with RAAC and to find emergency accommodation ‘until the building has been made safe through structural supports’.

As a result 20 of the 235 schools with suspected RAAC moved to a mix of in-person and online teaching, 19 delayed the start of term, and four moved to fully-remote learning.

Government figures released on 27 November 2023, revealed RAAC has been confirmed in 231 state-funded education settings and face-to-face teaching was offered in 227 of them.

Of these, around half (117) are primary schools, and nearly 40% (90) are secondary schools. The rest are either further education settings, all-through schools (combined primary and secondary) or other types of schools.

Geographically, nearly half of the schools affected are in the East of England, with 62 settings – 27% of the national total – in Essex. Suffolk, Birmingham, and Kent schools are also significantly impacted.

Funding and support

The Government has said that every school with RAAC identified receives support from a caseworker from the DfE and, where ‘additional support is required or the scale of works is large’, from a project delivery team.

In its guidance for responsible bodies and education settings with confirmed RAAC, updated in September 2023, the DfE said it will provide funding for one-time capital-funded mitigation works, such as propping and temporary accommodation.

It also said it would approve ‘reasonable requests’ for additional help with operational (revenue) costs, for example temporarily renting a local hall or office or transportation to locations.

And, in December 2023 Health Secretary, Gillian Keegan, said the DfE would also fund ‘longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to address the presence of RAAC in schools’.

And some schools with identified RAAC would receive funding through the School Rebuilding Programme.

Industry insight

SpacioTempo, a specialist in temporary and semi-permanent buildings, has been working with education providers across the country to bridge the gap caused by unsafe concrete buildings.

Speaking to Education Property, its managing director, Daz Logan, said: “The main challenges are the unpredictability of RAAC deterioration and the sudden urgent need for replacement education buildings.

“Spaciotempo aims to make the process as smooth as possible by providing fast turnaround times and flexibility.

“We have issued quotes to several schools and higher education authorities to provide temporary education facilities once RAAC issues were identified and have given advice and clarity around next steps.

“Our buildings are cost-effective, short- and medium-term solutions, can be installed quickly, and provide safe replacement teaching spaces tailored to each schools’ unique needs.

“We are equipped to provide classrooms, exam halls, sports facilities, canteens, and kitchen space, all with bespoke features such as glazing, insulation, HVAC systems, flooring, and lighting to provide a conducive learning environment.

“This helps minimise disruption, ensuring learning can continue quickly and safely.”

Advising estates managers on what to do if RAAC is identified, he added: “It is important to act quickly.

“We expect RAAC remediation will continue being a major issue over the next year, at least and more schools will likely identify areas needing replacement as responsible bodies work with the DfE to conduct more surveys.

“Working together with temporary building providers like Spaciotempo, the goal is to transition students to safe spaces with minimal impact on education, where this is necessary. Therefore, continued inspections and pro-active planning will be key to guaranteed UK-wide removal of RAAC, as well as ensuring issues like this do not resurface in the future.”

Furniture and fit-out specialist, Klick Technology, is also seeing an increase in the specification of modular buildings to help address the crisis and offers a one-stop-shop service to remove RAAC and fit new walls, floors, ceilings, and roofs.

A spokesman said: “Many schools are opting to install modular buildings to deal with their Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete issues in the short run.

“Modern modular buildings are built to withstand the demands of an educational environment. The interiors can be fitted out with science labs, food technology rooms, ICT suites, and many other applications.

“We are working with a college which has received funding for temporary buildings and has requested our help in fitting out science labs within them.

Modular solutions

“It is possible to design the room layout to allow the furniture to be uplifted from modular buildings and refitted into new buildings in the future, which is an additional benefit, especially if the requirement for additional space is temporary.”

Ricky Barford, sales director at Algeco Modular Hire, said that, in response to enquiries from schools, it has put in place a dedicated RAAC response team.

He added: “If you are a school or academy with RAAC in your buildings – or a contractor carrying out remediation works on behalf of an affected school – temporary classrooms will help minimise disruption to the teaching calendar.

“Algeco can advise on classroom layouts and provide a single point of contact from start to finish.

“Critical to this is on-time project completion  – a factor never more important when school children are having to be taught at home in some cases.

“Put simply, schools need to know the temporary classrooms will be there when they are meant to be, and temporary facilities can be installed in weeks and permanent buildings delivered 50% faster than traditional build.”

Keep Updated

Sign up to our weekly property newsletter to receive the latest news.