Not all schools impacted by concrete safety fears have been contacted and it is not clear how many will have to shut fully, a minister has admitted.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said in most cases “just a few buildings” or rooms within the affected schools will have to shut but “in some cases it will be the whole school”.
Asked whether all affected schools have been contacted, Mr Gibb told Sky News: “The vast majority have, we’ve been calling them yesterday. But there is a few more that we’re calling today.”
However, asked for a number on the full closures, he said: “We don’t know yet.”
The government announced on Thursday that around 104 schools or “settings” in England found with concrete prone to collapse are set to be closed or disrupted – on top of 52 that have already been affected this year.
Labour is calling on ministers to “come clean” and publish the full list of schools that will be impacted, as they have not yet been publicly named.
Mr Gibb said the government intended to do that “in due course” but he wanted parents to be informed by the school before they read about it in the media.
He also suggested more schools could be affected as not all building surveys have been completed.
The type of concrete forcing the closures is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete, known as RAAC.
Ministers are facing questions over why they made the announcement just days before the start of the new school term.
What is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete?
Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete – handily shortened to RAAC – is essentially a lightweight form of concrete.
It was used to build roofs, schools, colleges and other buildings from the 1950s until the mid-1990s, according to GOV.UK.
In comparison to traditional concrete, RAAC is weaker. It is made in factories using fine aggregate, with chemicals to create gas bubbles and heat.
Both the material properties and structural behaviour differs significantly from traditional reinforced concrete.
In 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety highlighted the significant risk of failure of RAAC planks.
Three years later in 2022, the Office of Government Property sent a safety briefing notice to all property leaders, saying that “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse”.
Chris Goodier, professor of construction engineering and materials at Loughborough University, said: “It is RAAC from the 1950s, 60s and 70s that is of main concern, especially if it has not been adequately maintained.
“RAAC examples have been found with bearings (supports) which aren’t big enough, and RAAC with the steel reinforcement in the wrong place, both of which can have structural implications.”
Mr Gibb said “new evidence” over the safety of RAAC emerged over the summer which prompted the government to change its guidance.
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Pupils will be out of school ‘for short period’
Previously remediation was required when the RAAC was in critical condition, but Mr Gibb said the Department for Education (DfE) is now taking the “cautious approach” that all RAAC should be removed.
Mr Gibb said: “In most cases it will be just a few buildings or a few rooms, or just a cupboard. But in some cases it will be the whole school. And in those circumstances we will be finding alternative accommodation.”
He insisted in cases where schools need to shut, children will only be out of face-to-face education for a “short period of time” – for an average of about six days.
And he said all costs of the remediation will be covered by the government.
“We’ve made it very clear we will cover all capital costs,” Mr Gibb said.
“So if in the worst-case scenario, we need portacabins in the school estate for an alternative accommodation, we will cover all those costs.”
Schools minister left parents with four key unanswered questions
As schools scramble to put new safety measures in place, many parents will be asking why it has taken the government so long to wake up to the gravity of this problem.
Education minister Nick Gibb told Sky News the government was taking a cautious approach to the problem of RAAC (reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete) in schools.
However, many would question the sincerity of those comments as the government has known about the risks of this type of concrete for years and was even told in September 2022 that the material was life-expired and liable to collapse.
Although Mr Gibb clarified that government will be paying for alternative accommodation for schools where necessary and that it would publish the full list of affected schools in due course, he left parents with four key questions.
Firstly, how many schools will have to close entirely? The minister couldn’t answer that question despite speculation it could be as many as 30.
Second, are all schools safe? Mr Gibb insisted they were, but the government is yet to receive all the data on RAAC in schools as not all schools have been checked.
Thirdly, although Mr Gibb guaranteed the list of affected schools would be published, he did not go as far as to say when that would be – leaving parents worried their children’s schools could be affected without them knowing.
And finally, the minister explained that not all schools impacted by RAAC had been informed yet, meaning there are schools that remain in the dark about whether they may need to be fully or partially closed.
With term beginning in a matter of days, the timing of these revelations come at a moment when Rishi Sunak and his government were hoping for a reset.
Mini reshuffle completed and refreshed from parliamentary recess, Mr Sunak will be frustrated by this false start ahead of the return to schools and Westminster.
Government ‘not being truthful’
Labour condemned the government for delay and inaction.
Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said safety concerns about RAAC have been known for years and blamed the issue on Tory “incompetence and neglect”.
He told Sky News: “We know, and so do government ministers, that five years ago in 2018, there was a school in Gravesend in North Kent that collapsed because it had this kind of concrete.
“They had a report from the Department for Education itself just last December telling them the situation was critical at that point.
“In the last two years, my colleague Bridget Phillipson (shadow education secretary) has raised this issue in questions and debates in parliament over 150 times.
“So if they’re telling you they didn’t know this was a problem, they’re not being truthful and they should have taken action the beginning of the summer holidays.”