The start of the school year began in a flurry of uncertainty and disruption this September, as thousands of parents across the country were told just days before term started that their child’s school would only partially reopen, or not reopen at all, due to the presence of dangerous, crumble-prone concrete in school buildings. Questions are being asked about the government’s handling of the situation, considering that concerns about the risks of RAAC in public buildings were first raised in 1994.
RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) was invented in 1930s Sweden as a cheap, lightweight alternative to traditional concrete. This ‘wonder material’ was used heavily in Britain’s postwar building boom and was being used to construct public buildings all the way up until the mid-90s.
Issues with RAAC were first discovered around 1994, when structural engineers began to find evidence of cracking and crumbling in older mixes of the material. The porous nature of the mixture makes it prone to absorbing moisture, which corrodes the steel reinforcement within, weakening the material and in some cases leading to collapse. This is a particular issue considering that RAAC was widely used in the construction of flat roofing, given its light weight in comparison to traditional concrete.
In 1996, a research paper from the government’s Building Research Establishment confirmed engineers’ concerns about the material, finding “excessive deflections and cracking” in RAAC samples and determining that the material only had a usable lifespan of about 30 years. The BRE’s report also stated that there was no evidence “so far” to indicate danger to building users, leading to a prolonged period of quiet on the issue, until a frightening incident in the summer of 2018.
Five years ago, at a primary school in Gravesend, Kent, an RAAC ceiling collapsed in the school’s staffroom. Thankfully, it was a Saturday night, and no one was present, but images of the collapse indicated the possibility of fatalities had there been.
No one was present, but images of the collapse indicated the possibility of fatalities had there been
By 2019, schools had been surveyed about the presence of RAAC in their buildings, and those with 40-year-old RAAC planks were told to “consider” replacing them. The Department for Education also concluded that between 300 and 400 schools needed repairing/rebuilding every year, at an annual cost of £4 billion.
In September 2022, the Office of Government Property provided a clear message – “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse”, but it was not until a further collapse in August this year that decisive action was taken, and the education secretary Gillian Keegan closed or partially-closed schools across the country.
Now that most (although not all) schools are back to normal, people are looking for someone to blame for a situation that ended in widespread disruption and could have ended in fatalities. Many, including the former permanent secretary at the Department of Education, Jonathan Slater, are pointing the finger at Rishi Sunak.
Slater led the recommendations back in 2019 that 300 to 400 schools a year needed to be repaired to combat the RAAC issue, and was “frustrated” that the Treasury would only provide cash for 100 a year. In 2021, Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor, cut this to 50 a year. Slater told BBC Radio 4, “We weren’t just saying there is a significant risk of fatality, we were saying there is a critical risk to life if the [rebuilding] programme is not funded.”
The Prime Minister came under further fire when the Guardian published that as Chancellor, he had blocked plans to rebuild five hospitals riddled with RAAC, at “catastrophic risk to patients.”
The Prime Minister has said that it is “completely and utterly wrong” to blame him for the current crisis.
It is worth noting that Sunak only came into a Cabinet position in 2020 and wasn’t even an MP until 2015, so whilst he does shoulder some responsibility for the situation, we must look back to 2010 for greater understanding of what led us here.
When David Cameron and George Osborne implemented their austerity measures in 2010, they reversed the trend of education spending under New Labour, which had been rising every year since 1997, peaking at £120 billion in 2010. The budget for the sector would go on to be slashed every year until 2020.
The key spending cut, and the most influential decision in this whole saga, was the axing of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme by then Education Secretary Michael Gove, in 2010.
Launched by Blair in 2004, the aim of the BSF programme was to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over a 15–20-year period, a scheme that would have included the replacement of dangerous RAAC. At the time, a high court judge described the move to scrap the programme as “so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power” and in 2016, Gove would himself describe the move as one of his worst decisions in politics.
The government would go on to implement a successor scheme in 2014 known as the Priority School Building programme. Yet in 2020, six years later, hundreds of schools were still waiting for the building work.
The opposition have eagerly latched on to the crisis, with the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting saying, “There is no image that better sums up what the Conservatives have done to our public services than the sight of crumbling schools and hospitals.” Labour probably couldn’t believe their luck when that video of Gillian Keegan emerged, a reminder to all politicians to know when your mic is switched on.
There is no image that better sums up what the Conservatives have done to our public services than the sight of crumbling schools and hospitalsWes Streeting, shadow health secretary
Clearly then, this issue was mishandled. The last thing the Covid generation of schoolchildren needed was yet more disruption, and it was only luck that prevented injury or death in the Gravesend collapse. While the Prime Minister must shoulder some of the blame, the crisis is emblematic of only one thing, and that’s a legacy of austerity.