Thousands of pupils in England may have to begin the autumn term taking lessons remotely or in temporary buildings after the government ordered more than 100 schools to immediately shut buildings made with aerated concrete until safety work is undertaken.
The guidance from the Department for Education was sent to 156 schools, school nurseries and further education colleges on Thursday, plunging the start of the new academic year into chaos for teachers and pupils.
The National Education Union, representing teachers, described the situation as “absolutely disgraceful” and warned of “massive disruption to the education of thousands of children”.
The government stated that, regardless of the assessed risk of a building made using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) blocks, they should be “taken out of use and mitigations should be implemented immediately”.
The latest development represents a sharp escalation of a building safety crisis that has been brewing for years after the weaker, lighter version of concrete was widely used in schools from the 1950s to the 1990s. It has an estimated 30-year lifespan.
Several recent sudden collapses of RAAC roof panels that appeared to be in good condition are among cases that “have made us less confident that buildings containing RAAC should remain open without extra safety measures in place”, the government said on Thursday.
Schools were told “this may come as a shock and is likely to cause disruption” but the guidance goes on to say “the safety of pupils, students and staff is our priority”.
In up to about two dozen schools, the amount of RAAC involved means students and teachers will need to be moved offsite to temporary accommodation. Children could be sent to neighbouring schools, sports could be moved from affected facilities to public leisure centres and remote online schooling could be restarted “as a last resort”.
The DfE said it was taking a “precautionary and proactive step” and said “this decision has been made with an abundance of caution”. But it will pay only for the repairs, and schools must pay for renting emergency accommodation and transport costs. Headteachers said this was an “absolutely ridiculous expectation given the huge pressures on school budgets” and vowed to fight back.
Such are the concerns, that schools are being told not to drill, cut or disturb anything they think might be RAAC and that any spaces containing RAAC “should remain out of uses until appropriate mitigations” are in place. Buildings previously ranked low risk should now also be shut.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said: “Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term.
The mitigations can include shoring up the structure with supports, or moving students to other parts of the school or, in some cases, setting up portable buildings in playgrounds.
It could involve students having to take lessons from home for anything from a few days to up to two weeks.
Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the NEU, said it was “a sign of gross government incompetence that a few days before the start of term, 104 schools are finding out that some or all of their buildings are unsafe and cannot be used”. He added: “There are 156 schools with confirmed RAAC but how many more where it has not yet been identified?”
Unison, which represents more than 200,000 non-academic school staff, said the situation was “nothing short of a scandal”.
“The DfE and government have squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings,” said its head of education, Mike Short.
Of the 156 affected institutions, almost all of which are schools, 52 already had mitigations, and for others, the RAAC blocks were already not being used, or only constituted small sections, officials said. All 104 affected schools were contacted on Thursday.
Guidance sent to the schools just days before the new term begins said caseworkers would help them find either emergency accommodation, such as a local college or nursery, cabins, or longer-term sites.
The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that officials were making hurried calls urging school leaders to draw up contingency plans for buildings at risk of collapse because of crumbling concrete. Now schools are being told to take buildings out of use straight away, in what appears to be a response to advice to proceed with greater caution.
Schools are being told the government will help them implement contingency plans quickly to “keep disruption to face-to-face education to an absolute minimum”.
Decaying aerated concrete had been found in 65 schools in England after nearly 200 completed surveys, with 24 requiring emergency action, according to a report by the National Audit Office. The number of schools at risk is expected to increase when the results of surveys of 572 schools with suspected RAAC are published by the DfE.
Four schools were shut in April and June after RAAC was discovered in their buildings. On Wednesday, a DfE spokesperson said: “We have been engaging with schools and responsible bodies about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018 and subsequently published guidance on identifying and managing it.”
The Association of School and College Leaders said the rush to establish contingency plans in case buildings collapsed was “symptomatic of the government’s neglect of the school estate”.
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said it was “shocking evidence of a department in disarray”.
NAHT, the union representing school leaders, said it had repeatedly raised concerns so, while “this news is shocking, sadly it is not hugely surprising”.
“What we are seeing here are the very real consequences of a decade of swingeing cuts to spending on school buildings,” said Paul Whiteman, the union’s general secretary. “There is no escaping the fact that the timing of this couldn’t be worse, with children due to return from the summer holidays next week. This will put school leaders under tremendous pressure as they have to scramble to organise alternative accommodation.”
The Institute of Structural Engineers earlier this year warned that cracking and spalling were risks in roof and floor panels made from RAAC. Many roof panels have been installed with insufficient bearing on structural supports resulting of a “significant risk” to the material’s integrity including “shear failure”. Some panels have become saturated by water ingress making them heavier than they were designed to be.