Schools in England could collapse due to weak concrete: what you should know

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LONDON – Schools across England have been forced to close amid fears that the material they were built from decades ago – a cheaper and weaker alternative to traditional concrete – is so damaged that the buildings could collapse.

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The closures, sparked by the “concrete crisis,” as it is being dubbed by British media, coincide with the start of a new school year, meaning thousands of students may have to be taught in makeshift classrooms or online until the buildings reopen are repaired.

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According to the British government, at least 156 schools have been built with RAAC, whose lifespan is around 30 years. Last week, the UK’s national workplace health and safety regulator said RAAC had “now expired”. It risks collapsing with little or no notice.”

On Monday, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told British media that 1,500 schools had not yet responded to a survey asking whether they had concrete on their grounds, raising fears that the total number of schools affected could rise.

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Here’s what you should know:

What is RAAC concrete and how is it made?

The material, known as Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), was widely used in the construction of public buildings from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. The material is lighter than traditional concrete and has been used to construct roofs, but has also been found in walls and floors. RAAC panels and planks have a blistered appearance and are softer than standard concrete.

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RAAC becomes weaker and more prone to breakdown with age. It usually looks light gray or white. The material was also used to build hospitals, courts and police stations.

RAAC is made from lime, water and an aerating agent.

The Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS), an independent body that identifies areas that could pose risks to structural safety, warns that buildings made of this material pose risks and can suddenly collapse “without apparent warning.”

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The committee notes that while RAAC is often referred to as concrete, it is “very different from traditional concrete and is much weaker because of the way it was manufactured.”

How long will the schools be closed and how much will the repair costs be?

It is still unclear how long the affected schools will remain closed. Some will only be forced to close certain areas of the building depending on where the material was identified.

The total cost of the repairs is also unclear at this stage, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told British media on Tuesday, adding that it was difficult to give an exact figure because the buildings were likely constructed with different amounts of the material. “In some schools it will just be a room or a closet,” he said, according to the Guardian. “In others it will be pervasive throughout.”

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Some schools will be forced to close completely, while others will limit operations to affected areas.

As the crisis rocks schools in England, risk assessments are also taking place in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

What were the political consequences of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government?

The British government said in a statement on Monday that it has been aware of materials being used in public sector buildings since 1994, and many people, including parents and opposition MPs, believe the government should have acted sooner to address the issue repair affected schools.

The government said in its statement that it had been monitoring the issue since 2018 and was helping schools manage the risks through guidance and funding, noting that concern had increased over the summer.

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“New cases have made us less confident that RAAC buildings should remain open without additional safety measures,” the statement said, adding that the partial or full closure of more than 100 schools was a “precautionary measure.”

On Monday Sunak said he understood families’ concerns but wanted to stress that “the vast majority of schools have not been affected”. He also said it was “completely wrong” to blame him for the crisis.

But Sunak’s critics say the prime minister and his government are not being transparent about the scale of the problem.

What do teachers, parents and others say about the specific topics?

“Do Not Enter” signs are already popping up in schools where RAAC poses a risk, forcing students to take their classes elsewhere. Some parents are concerned about the possibility of their children returning to remote learning, as they have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic.

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In Essex, England, a school wrote to parents to inform them that at least 22 classrooms had RAAC and were currently unusable. Another school in West Yorkshire may not be fully operational until September 2025, a headteacher said, adding that more than half of the building had RAAC.

“[My daughter] “has already been through the full pandemic in secondary school, her sister has too, and it’s not good for her education, it’s not good for her mental health or her social skills,” a mother from London told the BBC.

The National Education Union, a British union for teachers and learning support staff, called the crisis “absolutely shameful” and wrote that the closure of numerous schools just “a few days before the start of term” was “a sign of gross government incompetence.”

The organization also expressed concern that many more buildings could contain RAAC. “There are 156 schools with confirmed RAAC, but how many more schools have not yet been identified?” it said.

Parents and students have been advised that they will be contacted directly if they are affected by the issue.

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