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Education Committee To Investigate "Bigger Picture" Surrounding Schools Concrete Crisis

43 schools have been unable to start term as normal and 19 are closed entirely (Alamy)

4 min read

The education committee will investigate the “bigger picture” surrounding the RAAC concrete crisis that has affected schools across the UK.

More than 150 school buildings across England are deemed to be at risk of collapse as a result of potentially faulty reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), and the Department for Education (DfE) announced many of these schools would have to close as pupils were meant to start the new term.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday that the government would make “no apology” for moving to address the crisis now, after facing criticism that they had long been warned of the issue.

The government has also been invited by the Education Committee to answer questions about the actions it is taking to end the disruption affecting schools and colleges built with RAAC, in a one-off evidence session on Tuesday 19 September.

Witnesses will include Department for Education (DfE) Permanent Secretary Susan Acland-Hood and Baroness Barran, the minister with responsibility for school capital investment. 

Education committee chair and Tory MP Robin Walker told PoliticsHome that the government should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” to the crisis and must be careful not to concentrate all its resources on concrete safety concerns when there are so many other issues with school infrastructure that need to be addressed. 

“This is something which is part of a bigger picture in terms of school buildings, and it's important that as we look at this issue we don't distract from the need to invest in and renew estate and deal with things like the asbestos exposure and the overall quality of school buildings,” he said. 

“What we don't want to see is a sort of knee jerk reaction that means RAAC consumes all the resources available and those other issues don't get dealt with. It is important that this is absolutely dealt with as swiftly as possible with the minimal disruption, but it has to be in the context of ongoing investment in the school estate.”

Walker also said the committee had concerns that the RAAC crisis would only worsen the existing crisis around high rates of pupil absences since the Covid-19 pandemic, which the committee will soon be publishing a report on.

“We've had a long standing concern on the Education Committee about pupil absences,” he continued.

“And the big concern about this is it may result in pupils seeing disruption and being forced to be out of school for periods of time.

“What we don't want to do is in any way give the impression to parents or the wider public that children being out of school is a good thing and I think from a safeguarding perspective, we need to emphasise the fact that school buildings are safe places.

“They need to be kept safe places and therefore a zero risk approach to managing RAC is in my opinion the right thing to do, but we need to make sure it's done with the minimum possible disruption.”

He said the committee will want to ensure that solving the RAAC issue does not come out of the “much-needed” capital budget for repairs or new buildings of other schools.

In the evidence session, the committee will try to establish the facts about exactly when the information became available to the DfE, and how the department plans to support schools to minimise disruption to pupils and staff. 

Walker added that they will also try to understand how the DfE has worked with local authorities and devolved administrations – with the Conservative government claiming that much of the blame lies with institutions over which they do not have power. 

With many of the affected schools located in the south east of England, the committee is likely to also try to understand the regional disparities in order to determine where the most support is needed. 

Labour MP and education committee member Kim Johnson echoed Walker’s interest in the timescales of when the DfE knew about possible risks and what action they took.

Although schools in her own constituency are unaffected by RAAC, she told PoliticsHome it was particularly important to consider the impact that school closures could have on disadvantaged areas. 

“What we can’t have is more kids being denied education and the impact that’s likely to have, especially on disadvantaged areas,” she said.

“This is yet another example of Tory incompetence, and after Grenfell we need to ensure nothing terrible happens.”

In 2017, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, which spread rapidly up the building's exterior, due to dangerous combustible aluminium composite cladding and external insulation – governments have since investigated tower blocks with similar cladding and are continuing to replace the material on buildings across the country.

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