When the Department for Education declared its concern over buildings constructed with unsafe concrete on 1st September, more than 150 schools were forced to close their doors only days before students were expected back in the classroom. It is difficult to exaggerate the severity of the subsequent ‘RAAC crisis’.
The full scale of the crisis at the moment is difficult to grasp, not least since RAAC looks the same as normal concrete. Whilst only 156 schools are currently facing closure, a report by the National Audit Office in June revealed that, in actual fact, 572 schools have been identified as possibly containing Raac. Concrete experts, such as Professor Chris Goodier from Loughborough University, have pointed out that nothing is necessarily wrong with using RAAC as a building material, as long as it is adequately maintained. However, as we now know, it has not been adequately maintained. In fact, it seems that very few buildings in the public sector have been. Our schools are crumbling, along with the British education system itself, and our entire country. The RAAC crisis is just one example of the disastrous effects of the chronic underfunding suffered by our schools, police stations, hospitals, prisons and courts for over a decade. We are teetering on the edge of a self-constructed, slippery concrete slope, and the flimsy structures of our education system are beginning to crack.
It is telling that schools in certain areas, such as Essex and the north-east, are disproportionately represented on the list of school closures due to RAAC, exposing the severe regional inequality that underlines this crisis. This is the worst possible scenario for many students and teachers across the country. Schools that were already underfunded and disadvantaged are once again bearing the brunt of this disaster. One comprehensive school in county Durham is even using a local hotel in an attempt to maintain at least some level of in-person teaching after being told to close. But the persistent restlessness and din of a hotel foyer is far from ideal when it comes to teaching Macbeth, quadratic equations and Bach chorales. The teachers have no idea when they can return to their classrooms to retrieve vital folders of work and resources, and the students have no idea when remote learning will come to an end. The pupils preparing to apply to Oxbridge asked one teacher where they would be sitting their entrance exams; the teacher did not know. Still playing catch-up after Covid, an underfunded school that was already struggling is being forced to find its own way out of the crisis.
It has been particularly unsettling to discover that 22 schools on the original list of 156 closures had previously applied for ‘exceptional case’ rebuilding projects because of dangerous concrete, but had been denied them by the government. Underfunded schools in deprived areas begging for support were turned away, only to be closed thereafter. In these cases, it was no surprise when the concrete ticking time bomb finally went off.
The education gap between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged has never been wider. Perhaps the worst part of this crisis, however, is that there was nothing inevitable about it. This catastrophic disruption to learning was absolutely preventable. Concerns over RAAC were first raised in 1996 by an engineer, followed by a 2007 report which highlighted that the bubbly material would eventually structurally degrade. In 2017 and 2018 school roofs collapsed, and in 2019 the Structural Safety Committee raised attention to the significant risk of RAAC planks failing. Formal concerns over at-risk buildings have been raised for over 20 years, with ministers themselves admitting last year that over 30 NHS hospitals could ‘collapse without warning’. Clearly, nothing about this crisis was random. In fact, the very same school in Durham now using hotel rooms had featured in a programme called ‘Crumbling Schools’ in March 2022, which highlighted the building’s leaking pipes and broken windows. Warning was given. I highly doubt that any teacher in this school was surprised by its closure this month. For them, crumbling walls and leaky ceilings have been a classroom reality for the past decade. For them, the school playing field has never been level.
You might assume that once our leaders had been told that RAAC was ‘life-expired and liable to collapse’ by the Office of Government Property in 2022, or that some schools were now ‘a threat to life’ by the civil service in the same year, they would be compelled to properly fund school building projects. But this was not the case. Instead, our Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, splurged £34 million on an office revamp in April of this year. Perhaps nothing more acutely encapsulates the problem here than our Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, donating £100,000 of his own money to his old boarding school, Winchester College, having slashed the budget for repairing dangerous schools by a half when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2021. But this was only one layer in a Tory tier of cost-cutting.
When the Conservative party came to power in 2010, Michael Gove christened the Tory dedication to austerity by scrapping the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ project – a decision even he later admitted to have been ‘wasteful’. A real-terms cut to public spending by 50 per cent over the past decade casts considerable doubt on the Prime Minister’s claim that he will ‘spend whatever it takes’ on repair costs. Besides, repair costs will come from the existing education budget, leaving any additional costs to be covered by the schools themselves. So when advised by the Department for Education that £5.3 billion a year was needed to mitigate the ‘serious risks of building failure’, Rishi Sunak giving funding for no more than 50 schools tells us all we need to know about the Tories’ commitment to our public sector.
There has perhaps never been any greater manifestation of educational and regional inequality than this RAAC crisis. Successive years of increasing neglect and underfunding have turned a preventable catastrophe into an inevitable disaster. Instead of properly investing in education, a government obsessed with cost-cutting waited until school roofs were literally falling in on themselves before taking any action. Buildings with RAAC may have passed their sell-by date, but so too has the government which paved the way for this crisis.
Image Credit: Steven Baltakatei Sandoval // CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons