The problems that arose concerning Reinforced Aerated Autoclaved Concrete (RAAC) last week are alarming as more schools and many more buildings may be implicated. Alarming though this is, it is also a serious symptom of a fundamental malaise in how the UK is being governed. This should be a wake-up call to everyone that things are not right with how the future is being planned. The reluctance of the government to release the names of the schools may be explained by the very high proportion of academy/ foundation schools involved and this suggests that local authority run school estates have been better managed. Meanwhile the impact on students just adds even more woe.
The controversy blew up fast with release of the government’s ‘New guidance for schools impacted by RAAC’ on the 31st of August. This came as a shock for many schools in England since it asked them to assume that any RAAC in their building could be prone to sudden and unexpected failure. Coming as it did just before the start off school term only magnified the shock.
Yet the government appeared to have little choice but to act quickly after an unexpected failure of RAAC in an unnamed school late in the summer break. This came after the sudden roof collapse at a primary school in Essex back in 2018 that was not acted upon so quickly. See the ‘Standing Committee on Structural Safety’ report for 2019 that reinforced the urgent need for proper maintenance.
No surprise surely.
Lack of foresight and underfunding seems to be embedded into how resources are managed and planned in the UK. The inadequate ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ philosophy frustrates those of us looking to plan contingencies more effectively. It could be argued equally that there might not be a bridge to cross when you get there, or it might be made from RAAC.
Yet, the problem with RAAC has been well documented for years. The Science Media Centre provides an excellent overview of the current situation and explains how prefabricated RAAC units were widely used around the world after the second world war. It was used extensively in Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Japan. The UK was then fifth largest user of RAAC. In a period of post-war optimism, it certainly aided the rapid rebuilding programmes needed after the devastation. But it also came with its own inbuilt warnings.
The clock was ticking.
When the first RAAC unit was installed, the clock started ticking on its useful life of between 30 to a maximum of 50 years. This was in turn affected by how well maintained the structures were, and especially protection from water ingress. However, a combination of exceeding the design lifetime and poor maintenance would seem to have led us to today as sure as night follows day.
Construction News observed last week that, ‘RAAC failures could be due to poor maintenance’ and “Collapse-prone reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is more likely to fail if the structure has been mistreated or overloaded”
Whilst the government might boast it is taking more action than other countries that used RAAC, there could be a simpler explanation. By adopting better maintenance and building renewal work earlier, many other countries may have avoided the situation and do not have to take such action now.
Underfunding lies at the core of the problem.
With the well-known issues of RAAC emerging over a long time, a report by the ‘Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS), ‘Structural Safety 1997–99: Review and recommendations Twelfth Report of SCOSS The Standing Committee on Structural Safety’ raised some important observations about the performance of RAAC. But they did not at that time see a pressing need to act quickly with the recommendation,
“Owners of both school and non-school buildings that have pre-1980 RAAC plank roofs should arrange for these roofs to be inspected if this has not been done since 1994, although generally the deterioration of RAAC planks does not jeopardise structural safety”.
The assumption was that the structures would be well maintained. Something that probably did not happen in many cases when funding fell short.
Renewal was needed a long time ago.
Driven by multiple problems, not simply RAAC, the government at the time started to consider the declining school estate and decided to take radical action with a major rebuilding programme. The result was the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ (BSF) programme that was announced in parliament by the Schools Standards Minister, David Miliband, in 2003 with,
“Continue existing, successful capital programmes for primary and secondary schools; but use the extra capital investment available in 2005–06 for a major programme of secondary school building;
Collaborate better with other capital funders to create schools that are community assets;
Target the extra capital investment on geographical areas, covering groups of schools;
Develop exemplar designs to ensure consistently high standards of design for all new schools; and
establish a new national body to support local authorities in ensuring that new schools are well designed, built on time, offer value for money to the taxpayer, and properly maintained over their lives”.
It was a hugely bold plan to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over 15-20 years and target the most deprived schools first, based on GCSE results and free school meal (FSM) uptake.
But by 2007 the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee asked in a report, ‘Sustainable Schools: Are we building schools for the future?’. Even though over 800 schools had already been rebuilt before the BSF, it asked “Is BSF the best way to spend £45 billion on education”. It was a sign that some MPs were having doubts, particularly the use of private finance in partnerships planned through the ‘Partnerships for Schools’ vehicle.
The result was that by 2009 the National Audit Office had laid bare the vast extent of the rebuilding needed with a budget of around £55 billion for an estimated 3,500 secondary schools to be rebuilt or refurbished. It was a tall order, but the scale of the challenge itself indicated that the deterioration had already gone too far.
The philosophy then changed to ‘we’ll build that bridge when we get to it’.
A new approach.
Instead of following through, the incoming coalition government of 2010 launched an urgent review of the whole scheme. But it was hardly going to continue with such massive state intervention aimed at the least advantaged. In a difficult financial climate, the government quickly scrapped the scheme. Some reasons for this were set out in an ‘Equality Impact Assessment’ (pdf) in 2012. This gave more insight into the decision and concluded that,
“The stopped BSF schools have higher rates of FSM and pupils with English as an additional language compared to all maintained schools – this is true for both mainstream and special schools.”
The subsequent restriction of school funding as student numbers were rising was summarised in a House of Commons report on the 8th of September 2023 in ‘School buildings and capital funding (England)’
It was a major blow for ‘levelling up’ that has had a long-lasting effect up to today. With much less investment and a drive for academies and free schools outside of local authority control, the rot was setting in, literally.
If crumbling concrete was not enough, any attempt to replace it would likely run up against the problem of asbestos in older buildings. In addition, there was the added spice of the coalition government deregulation, combined with a reduction in resources and expertise for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). They also changed how money was allocated to schools for rebuilding and refurbishment. The upshot was that, over 24 years after the use of asbestos was banned in the UK, the British Safety Council estimated that 85 per cent of schools still contained the material.
The schools affected in 2023 might provide a clue.
Initially the government was reluctant to release the names of schools that were affected by RAAC. They had the data on 30th August 2020 and finally released the 147 schools in the ‘List of education settings with confirmed RAAC’ on the 6th of September. It is important to note that this number is only a very small proportion of the 24,442 schools in England in 2023 (‘Schools, pupils and their characteristics, Academic year 2022/23’). Also, the list did not include independent schools.
There are 38 schools in Scotland affected and only two schools in Wales with none reported so far for Northern Ireland.
Taken from the ‘List of education settings with confirmed RAAC’, ‘Figure 1 shows a breakdown of the proportion of school types involved. Firstly, the majority are primary schools. Secondly, there are far more academy schools than expected in the list. The figures are as of 30 August 2023 and refer to state-funded schools, maintained nursery schools and further education (FE) colleges in England and it is not complete.
This apparent anomaly might be explained by there being more academy schools to start with. Certainly, their numbers have been rising over the years.
However, Figure 2 shows how the numbers of different types of school have changed from 2016/16 to 2021/22 (the data is taken from the School characteristics education statistics – GOV.UK). This means that the academy/foundation schools are overrepresented by a lot in the RACC list. Also, that local authority run schools are very much underrepresented. This is somewhat of a surprise, bearing in mind the extra government resources diverted into the academies and foundation schools.
The suspicion is that the management and funding structure of local authorities has been more effective over time in maintaining schools. Perhaps this explains why the list was withheld for so long until parliament intervened last week.
The use of concrete in buildings goes back thousands of years. The first concrete structures date from around 6500BC in what is now Syria and Jordan. From around 600 BC the Romans started to use what they called opus caementicium as the main structural component of larger buildings. Many still stand today and the best known example is the Parthenon in Rome. Completed in 438 BC, it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Many modifications emerged over the centuries with the use of reinforced concrete, with steel T-headed rebars, being used from the eighteenth century. The idea of replacing composite materials with aeration to make the concrete lighter and more insulating started in Sweden in 1929 and its use spread widely. It is still used today and the European Autoclaved Aerated Concrete Association (EAACA) promotes the interests of in 18 countries operating more than 100 production sites and producing enough to build about 350,000 homes.
But there is little doubt that use of any building material has safety implications and there are numerous regulations imposed around the world. The use of concrete and RAAC materials is no exception.
In 1982, production of RAAC in the UK stopped amid concerns over its structural performance and life expectancy, which was predicted to be around 30 years. Indeed, the stability of more modern, imported panels has been called into question too. As a result, RAAC planks are not considered to be durable materials, and references to them in British Standard BS 8110, replaced by EN 12602 in 2016, have been dropped for fear of lending respectability to what is a relatively short-lived material.
A matter of perception.
There is a general assumption that concrete is durable, solid, and difficult to remove. Certainly, the longevity of many concrete buildings seems to confirm that. But the perceptions of our leaders, influenced by a classical education and Roman technology as old as the hills, might have led them to believe that all concrete lasts for ever. They have just found out it does not and the illusion of permanence has been shattered.
The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.