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UK Concrete School Closures – What’s the Latest?

UK Concrete School Closures – What’s the Latest?
01 September 2023 | Updated 07 May 2024

The government has announced that over 100 schools in England will need to close buildings because they are at risk of collapse. ThisWeekinFM looks at the latest on this developing story.


What did the Department for Education Announce?


On 31 August 2023, days before the start of the autumn term, The Department for Education released a statement announcing that mitigations would need to be taken in school buildings where Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) is present.

104 schools have been contacted to ask them to vacate buildings that are known to contain RAAC. Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, said that they were making the change now due to them “acting on new evidence about RAAC”. The BBC has published a list of schools they believe are affected. 

Engineers are working on several of the affected sites to asses the next steps and schools that have not yet completed a questionnaire on possible exposure to RAAC have been urged to do so.


How Much Will it Cost?


According to the Department for Education, they will do "whatever it takes to keep children safe." They stated: "Where schools need additional help with revenue costs like transport to other locations, we will work with every school affected to put appropriate support in place.

"We will then also fund the longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects where these are needed to rectify the RAAC issue in the longer term."

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the government would "spend what it takes to sort out this problem as quickly as possible”.

Dr David Crosthwaite, Chief Economist at the Building Cost Information Service, said that each affected building might cost £5 million or more to replace, based on their data.

He continued: “There are certainly many other public buildings including hospitals that would have used reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

"This will mean a lot of work for surveyors and engineers, maintenance contractors, Acrow prop manufacturers and possibly Portacabin manufacturers at a time when according to the Office for National Statistics, more than one in five construction businesses are experiencing a shortage of workers.”

"RAAC was supposed to have a 30-year design life and most of the buildings affected are beyond this. It’s important to recognise that for such publicly procured buildings, it is typical to assume a 50-year design life. This would imply that most of these buildings would have been approaching end-of-life anyway and their designers may, with good reason, have expected them to be extensively refurbished or replaced about now.”


Why is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) a Concern?


The government and related bodies have been aware of the limitations of RAAC since the1990s, when several bodies recognised these structural deficiencies in RAAC panels, reporting cracking, excessive displacements and poor durability. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) undertook a number of inspections of school roofs, reporting several concerns, which were also raised within the 1997 Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) report.

In 2017, an RAAC roof collapsed suddenly in a school, triggered by outfall gutters becoming blocked which allowed ponding of water on the roof to quickly build up during a storm.

In June 2023, The National Audit Office said that over a third (24,000) of English school buildings are past their estimated initial design life and the possibility of a building collapse or failure causing death or injury has been a “critical and very likely” risk since summer 2021. 

RAAC was used to construct parts of the public sector estate in the past, including schools and healthcare buildings. It has a limited lifespan, after which it deteriorates significantly. It was used widely in the UK from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. RAAC panels have low compressive strength, around 10-20 per cent of traditional concrete, reducing the shear and bending strength. It’s also very porous and highly permeable, so steel reinforcement within the panels is less protected against rusting than steel reinforcement in traditional concrete.

Picture: a photograph of a desk with some books and a tablet on top. Image Credit: Pixabay

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 01 September 2023


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