Yesterday’s shocking news about the state of buildings made using lightweight concrete should prompt politicians to reboot the entire school rebuilding programme

What a mess. The start of the school term next week has been thrown into chaos for thousands of pupils, parents and teachers because a form of outdated lightweight concrete used in hundreds of buildings has been deemed so unsafe that it now poses an unacceptable risk to life and has forced their schools to close.


No wonder there is outrage. The government has known for five years that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC for short, posed a risk. In 2018 a school ceiling in Kent made of RAAC panels collapsed, and it was only sheer good luck that no one was hurt as it happened during a weekend when the school was not open.

Action, to some extent, has been taken. The Department for Education (DfE) has surveyed schools in England and found there are 156 confirmed cases of RAAC in school buildings. Mitigations were put in place for 52 schools where the concrete was in a critical condition, which has meant finding alternative accommodation or measures such as propping. The rest were classed as non-critical.

>> Also read: The RAAC schools crisis: what we know so far

So why, then, just days before the start of the new academic year, has the government stepped in to close more than 100 schools? What changed so dramatically over the summer?

Nick Gibb was asked that question on the BBC’s Today programme this morning and he revealed that new evidence had emerged in recent weeks. When pushed, he admitted that an RAAC beam that was previously deemed not to be in a critical state had collapsed.

So this means that all the schools which knew about RAAC in their buildings but thought it was safe to carry on and just refurbish or rebuild over time now have to assume that there could be an incident at any moment. The only option left is to close buildings and look for quick fixes in the form of temporary accommodation. In the meantime, a whole load of disruption is going to affect a lot of school children and their families.

It is just no good saying, ‘At least we know there’s a problem, we just didn’t realise how urgently we needed to actually address it’. That simply will not wash.

Could all this chaos have been prevented? That is the question that makes this debacle so politically sensitive. The schools minister said England was doing better than other home nations in terms of knowing about the school buildings affected by RAAC. He pointedly called on the Welsh and Scottish administrations to carry out similar surveys of their school estates.

But this line of argument is unlikely to impress the public. It is just no good saying, ‘At least we know there’s a problem, we just didn’t realise how urgently we needed to actually address it’. That simply will not wash.

For a decade or so there has been a widening gap between the government’s capital funding for the school estate and the deteriorating state of England’s school buildings. In 2020, the DfE recommended a minimum annual spend of £5.3bn to ensure the long-term maintenance of school buildings. The actual average spend was less than half of this, £2.3bn a year between 2016-2017 and 2022-2023.

>> Also read: How do we fix England’s crumbling school estate?

Yes, there is the School Rebuilding Programme, but it only aims to rebuild or repair 500 schools over the next decade. That is a drop in the ocean when you consider that 38% of school buildings are past their estimated design life, according to the National Audit Office’s Condition of School Buildings report.

The point is that this government has got used to kicking the can down the road when it comes to properly investing in the fabric of our social infrastructure – and it is worth remembering that RAAC is a problem that affects hospitals and other public sector buildings as well.

For years voices in the construction industry have been warning about England’s crumbling school buildings. They have consistently made the argument that to get value for money for the taxpayer we need a properly funded, long-term strategy.

Instead school leaders are being forced to waste money patching up buildings that are at the end of their useful lives to try to keep them functioning for a few more years. Meanwhile restricted budgets for new projects – which have failed to keep up with inflation – mean that contractors’ tenders for education work are often rejected on cost grounds, leading to further delay and more costs in the long run.

Politicians will rightly be focused in the immediate days and weeks on minimising the disruption to the pupils affected by this RAAC scandal. Construction firms will be on the front line, making buildings safe and bringing in temporary accommodation.

But, once these urgent measures are in place, attention must quickly turn to a fully funded and rebooted school rebuilding programme in partnership with the industry. There can be no more kicking of the can down the road.

Chloe McCulloch, Building editor