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‘Shocking’: RIBA slams closure of 150+ schools over safety fears

The closure of facilities at more than 150 schools in England has been described as ‘shocking’ by the RIBA, which has repeatedly warned about their structural safety

About 150 schools in England could be forced to shut buildings made of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete with a short lifespan – without safety measures in place, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.

Outgoing RIBA President Simon Allford said the last-minute nature of the school closures, which come days before pupils return to schools next week, was ‘shocking’ given repeated warnings over RAAC in the school estate.

‘It’s shocking to see this advice issued, just days before schools are due to reopen,’ said Allford on his final day as RIBA president yesterday (31 August). ‘The government must now make it an immediate priority to identify the extent of remediations necessary and fund them without delay.’


Allford, who has previously called on the government to release the names of schools deemed structurally unsafe, added: ‘All young people and staff deserve to learn and work without fearing for their safety.

‘We have repeatedly raised concerns about the dangerous state of some school buildings – and the government has failed to fund desperately needed repairs.’

In an announcement yesterday (31 August), the DfE said new evidence had emerged over the summer which ‘led to a loss of confidence in buildings containing the material’.

Then followed the announcement that schools should ‘close any spaces or buildings that are known to contain RAAC to allow them to put mitigations in place’.

Some 52 schools have already received DfE assistance to take such measures.


Schools minister Nick Gibb told BBC Radio 4's Today programme today (1 September) that some reports had been received about RAAC in school buildings as late as last week, leading to the announcement that buildings should be shut just days before the start of the school term.

He added that the total number of schools affected could still rise and that the government ‘absolutely will’ cover the costs of school closures. A list of the names of schools affected will be released ‘in due course’, Gibb said.

‘So if in the worst-case scenario, we need site cabins in the school estate for an alternative accommodation, we will cover all those costs,’ he added. ‘There has been some speculation that we won’t cover those costs. We absolutely will.'

In June, the DfE said it was allocating £459 million for upgrades to 859 academies, sixth-form colleges and voluntary aided schools.

The RIBA said the funding did not go far enough and was ‘a small proportion of the amount needed’ to fix England’s schools, many of which he claimed were in ‘serious disrepair’.

An official briefing submitted to the House of Commons library in January found that, since 2009-2010, government capital spending on schools had fallen 37 per cent in cash terms and by 50 per cent when adjusted for inflation (at 2022 prices).

The report said: ‘In financial year 2021-22 capital spending by the Department for Education was around £4.9 billion; this was the lowest amount recorded since 2009-10 (in real terms 2022-23 prices).’

It did, however, acknowledge a 29 per cent real terms rise in spending for 2022-23 compared with the previous year.

A separate financial report released by the DfE in December found ‘a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools’ – mainly those built between 1945 and 1970 using ‘system build’ light frame techniques.

The DfE has been approached for comment.


Colin Tait, civil and structural director at engineers Harley Haddow

It is surprising that this has suddenly become an issue, as the failure mechanisms of RAAC panels have long been discussed and on the radar of structural engineers. Across the UK, RAAC panels are present in a large number of buildings from police stations through to schools and hospitals. A collapse of these planks could be catastrophic, which is why we are seeing such rapid action being taken.

From the mid-90s, the UK’s Building Research Establishment was publishing information guides on RAAC identification, potential failure modes, maintenance regimes and remedial works – this was all off the back of RAAC failures in the 80s.

As recently as 2019, warnings by the UK’s SCOSS (Standing Committee for Structural Safety) of a RAAC panel collapse in a school brought a renewed light to the subject. Respective government bodies made building owners aware of these potential risks at that time.

There are many reasons why these planks fail. Overloading, poor or limited plank support, excessive deflection and water ingress to name a few. Some of these flaws are down to poor design, poor construction, or simply down to poor maintenance. Cracking to the plank, particularly near its support and water ingress – whereby it turns the concrete, in essence, to a ‘sponge’ – were felt particularly worrying. Hidden behind false ceilings, collapse of these planks could be without warning and devastating.

Presently the Department for Education August 2023 guidance advises restriction of access to spaces where RAAC has been confirmed. This is irrespective of the condition, the maintenance programme or inspection regime previously implemented.

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