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Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete in Education Settings

Volume 832: debated on Monday 4 September 2023


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the steps that my department is taking to support education settings to respond to the risk of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, commonly known as RAAC.

Before I go into specifics, I want to be clear that absolutely nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff. It has always been the case that where we are made aware of a building that poses an immediate risk, we have taken immediate action. Parents and children have been looking forward to starting the new term, and I understand that the timing of this change in guidance to schools and colleges will have caused concern and disruption. However, faced with recent cases, including one that emerged right at the end of the school holidays, I believe 100% that this is the right thing to do. That is why we have taken such rapid steps to support our schools and colleges.

There are over 22,000 schools and colleges in England, and the vast majority are unaffected by RAAC. Local authorities and multi-academy trusts are responsible for those buildings, but we have been supporting schools and colleges to ensure that risks resulting from RAAC are mitigated. To date, 52 schools and colleges have those mitigations in place.

The majority have been able to continue to provide face-to-face learning without any disruption, and we remain in contact with them. Last week we advised a further 104 schools and colleges to take spaces that are known to contain RAAC out of use if they have not already done so. The majority of these settings will remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing site, because only a small part of the site is affected. A minority of pupils will be fully or partially relocated to alternative accommodation to continue face-to-face learning while mitigations are put in place.

I want to reassure parents and children that we are taking a deliberately cautious approach to prioritising children’s safety. Because of our proactive questionnaire and surveying programme, we have a better understanding of where RAAC is on the school estate than in most other countries. All schools and colleges that have advised us they suspect they might have RAAC will be surveyed within a matter of weeks—in many cases in a few days. Most suspected cases will not have RAAC. So far when we have surveyed schools, around two-thirds of suspected cases do not have RAAC. We will follow the same approach with any new cases through the professional surveying programme.

The vast majority of schools will be unaffected and children should attend school as normal unless parents are contacted by their school. As my right honourable friend the Minister for Schools explained on Friday, we will publish a list of schools once mitigations are in place. It is right that parents are informed by schools if their school is impacted, and that schools have time to work with their Department for Education caseworker on those mitigations.

I am confirming today that we will publish the list of the 156 schools with confirmed cases of RAAC this week, with details of initial mitigations in place. After that, we will provide updated information as new cases of RAAC are confirmed and existing cases resolved. This will include updates on the impact on pupils, such as how many are learning face-to-face and how many are receiving short periods of remote education. Once again, we are doing everything in our power to minimise disruption and avoid remote learning.

I must thank the professional response of leaders, teachers and support staff in the sector, who have acted swiftly to deliver contingency plans. Each impacted school and college has a dedicated caseworker to help implement a mitigation plan. This could include other spaces on the school site or in nearby schools, or elsewhere in the local area, until structural supports or temporary buildings are installed. We have increased the supply of temporary buildings, working with three contractors, and accelerated the installation of these. We have the support of our leading utility companies to ensure that those classrooms can be opened. In the small number of schools with confirmed RAAC, disruption to face-to-face learning has usually lasted a matter of days.

In terms of funding, as the Chancellor said, we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe. That includes paying for emergency mitigation work to make buildings safe, including alternative classroom space where necessary. Where schools need additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations, we are actively engaging with every school affected to put appropriate support in place. We will also fund the longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects, where these are needed, to remove RAAC.

Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time. Indeed, the question of how to manage its risks across all sectors has spanned successive Governments since 1994. My department alerted the sector about the potential risks of RAAC in 2018, following a sudden roof collapse at a primary school. We published a warning note with the Local Government Association, which asked all responsible bodies to:

‘Identify any properties constructed using RAAC’

and to

‘ensure that RAAC properties are regularly inspected by a structural engineer’.

In February 2021 we issued a guide on how to identify RAAC. Concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, in 2022 we decided to take a more direct approach. We issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies for all 22,000 schools to ask them to identify whether or not they had or suspected RAAC. Responsible bodies have submitted responses to the questionnaire for 95% of schools with blocks built in the target period.

In September 2022 we started a programme where the DfE sent a professional surveyor to assess whether RAAC is present. If RAAC was present, the previous DfE guidance was to grade it as critical or non-critical and take buildings out of use only for critical RAAC cases. Such was the level of our concern, however, that I asked officials to seek evidence of risks, including with non-critical RAAC. It is because of this proactive approach that we discovered details of three new cases over the summer where RAAC that would have been graded as non-critical had failed without warning. The first was in a commercial setting. The second was in a school in a different educational jurisdiction. In that instance, the plank that failed remained suspended, resting on a steel beam. As the plank was fully intact, DfE technical officials and engineers were able to investigate the situation. In their professional judgment, the panel affected would have been rated as non-critical but it had failed.

Ministerial colleagues and I were already extremely concerned, but then a third failure of RAAC panels occurred, at a school in England in late August. This was a panel that had previously been graded as non-critical. Because children’s safety is our absolute priority, it was right to make the difficult decision to change our guidance for education settings, so that areas previously deemed to contain non-critical RAAC are now being closed.

I want to set out why we are taking this more cautious approach with the education estate in England. Professional guidance is clear that wherever RAAC is found, it needs to be monitored closely. The school estate is very disparate, with 22,000 settings and over 64,000 individual blocks. Monitoring RAAC closely is therefore very difficult to do on the estate, and many responsible bodies do not have dedicated estates professionals on all school or college sites at all times. That is why the approach we are taking is the right one for our schools and colleges. My officials have worked closely with experts in this field. Chris Goodier, professor of construction engineering and materials at Loughborough University, has said that:

‘DfE has been employing some of the best engineers on this and have consulted us and the Institution of Structural Engineers’.

The Government’s priority is for every child across the United Kingdom to go to school safely. My officials have been engaging urgently with the devolved Administrations to discuss our findings and offer support to understand RAAC in school estates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Last week, I wrote to offer my support, including further official or ministerial-level engagement and to facilitate discussions between our technical experts.

I am aware that this policy change occurred during the recess, and therefore I was not able to notify the House in advance. For that I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope you understand why I felt that I had to take the decision when I did. We are taking an extremely cautious approach on this issue, but I believe that this is the right thing to do when it comes to the safety of children. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity for us to discuss the issue of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC, which is one of the most pressing issues this country faces in both education and the wider built environment. I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience. I thank the Minister for her time earlier briefing Members of this House; her approach in this regard is much appreciated.

It is clear, however, that this is not the start to term that it should have been for many schools and students, who have already missed too much education over the past few years due to Covid. This is not a new problem. The Government were aware that this was a critical issue in 2018. More could clearly have been done sooner, including putting more resources into tracing information from schools which failed to respond immediately to the government questionnaire.

The Statement from the Secretary of State appears in some ways to play down the scale of the problem, while not playing down the scale of the issue for schools where RAAC has been identified. It is no doubt of small comfort to the schools affected that they are largely in the minority, but the fact is that the number of schools facing this issue is currently unknown, and the figure provided in the Statement is probably a drastic underestimate. The Government need to learn from previous and very recent building safety crises and remember the issues that arose once ACM cladding was identified as a safety concern following the Grenfell Tower fire.

It is clearly right that the risk to children be taken seriously and that affected schools need to close or partially close. However, it is still not clear, despite the Statement, why the assessment of what constituted dangerously critical-grade RAAC was not stronger previously. Can the Minister reassure us that what the Schools Minister described in January this year as visual inspections are now definitely intrusive and sufficient to ensure confidence that the surveys being undertaken provide an accurate picture? Also, what is the additional risk posed by asbestos in the affected buildings?

While we may not choose to use her form of words, the Secretary of State was right to imply that more action may be required of her government colleagues. We also need confidence from this Government that they are taking every action possible to identify the range of buildings this issue affects, and that they will identify new funding to address the crisis and the scandal of failing RAAC. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are engaging fully with the Fire and Rescue Service, other emergency services and local resilience forums on this matter and providing them with the information and guidance they need to respond to and prepare for what must now be an entirely reasonable worst-case scenario involving a major building collapse in a school or other affected buildings?

I know that others will have questions on funding for schools to resolve this issue. However, I note that a recent House of Commons briefing highlighted that between the financial years 2009-10 and 2021-22, capital spending by the Department for Education ranged between a high of £9.8 billion in 2009-10 and a low of £4.9 billion in 2021-22, based on 2022-23 prices. This means that in England, under the current Government, school building funding has declined by around 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms. By way of contrast, under Labour in Wales, capital funding has increased by around 23% in real terms over the last decade.

This is not just about the identification of schools facing the immediate problem of RAAC; it is also about choices around what to prioritise spending on. This is actually about political choices. How could this situation happen when there were already warnings to government of a critical risk to life? Why did the Prime Minister, when Chancellor, cut the funding intended to address this issue in the 2021 spending review rather than increase it at that point?

I look forward to hearing the wider debate on this and other issues arising from the Statement. I also look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and updating us on this issue. As a parent myself, I am sending a child to a new school. I have every sympathy with parents who are deeply worried about the situation and everything that teachers across the country are doing. If safety had been prioritised over budgets, we would not be in this position today.

The Statement says that, within a matter of weeks, a list of all schools will be published

“once mitigations are in place”.

Although I welcome the change of heart from the Government, does the Minister feel that, with 10% of schools left to conduct surveys, those surveys will be available in a couple of weeks?

Further, the Statement says that the Government will spend “whatever it takes”. This was later clarified as coming from existing educational budgets. Given the scale and urgency of the problem, does the Minister really feel that school budgets alone will be capable of dealing with this problem?

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their remarks. I feel that I must start by countering the assertions from the noble Earl that safety has come second to budgets and that budgets have been prioritised over safety. I want to be 100% clear with the House: there is not a single case in which we have known of an immediate risk to life and the department has not acted. We have an urgent capital support fund, which we use in such cases. I want to make it clear on the record that what the noble Earl said is not an accurate reflection of the facts.

The noble Earl also referred to the publication of the list of schools, to which we have committed. To be clear, our priority—I think that many Members of your Lordships’ House would agree with this—was to communicate with parents first. When the names of schools started to leak into the press at the end of last week, one school in particular was so inundated by the media that it was unable to communicate with parents and get on and plan its mitigations. It was a school for children with profound learning difficulties. If there is one school that all of us in this House would want to keep open, it is a school for children with learning difficulties. I really think that there was an extremely good reason why we prioritised that.

I do not recognise the figure of 10% of schools needing to be surveyed. That simply is not accurate. We are confident that in the next few weeks we will be able to complete the surveys that are needed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, focused significantly on funding and the Chancellor’s statement. The Chancellor was crystal clear in his statement. Let me just run through the funding that we are offering schools immediately. It will cover immediate capital costs relating to, for example, temporary classrooms, propping or whatever else might be needed. It will also cover revenue costs. For example, we will work on a case-by-case basis with schools but, if additional school transport costs arise, we will cover them. If schools need to rent space in another building, we will help with that. All reasonable requests will be dealt with reasonably. Our absolute aim is to remove friction for schools so that they can get children back in classrooms as quickly as possible.

I remind the House that we have, through our various school rebuilding programmes, already rebuilt more than 500 schools since 2010. We have added 1 million new school places to accommodate the increase in the number of pupils. The noble Baroness referred to the track record of the Labour Government in Wales on funding, but I remind the House that we are working with and supporting the Labour Government in Wales and with colleagues in Scotland, because they had not started this survey programme. We are all aiming for the same thing, to resolve this as quickly as possible, but we need to be fair when hurling things around. I am not suggesting that the noble Baroness was not being fair, but I am trying to set the balance. I really commend my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Berridge, and colleagues in the department who have been tireless in working on this issue.

The noble Baroness also questioned whether we could have done more sooner. I do not want to repeat myself but our understanding of how this building material behaves is as good as anyone’s. The new evidence that came out this summer is genuinely new. It is since the end of term that we have become aware of these three cases. I stop and think about the case that happened 10 days ago, and what would have happened if that had happened in 10 days’ time. This Statement would feel very different for us all.

On co-ordinating with fire and rescue services and local resilience forums, I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that our absolute priority at the moment is working with each individual school. We have about 50 caseworkers working with individual schools. We have project directors going on-site. As soon as we get through this first phase and all children are back in education, we will of course co-ordinate, and the Government will gladly accept any other suggestions that the noble Baroness makes.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is highly undesirable for schools to have to resort to online teaching? If that is the case, would she encourage those with spaces to make them available as temporary classrooms? I have in mind, for examples, churches—that point might be noted on the Bishops’ Benches—village halls, private sector schools with available classrooms and maybe commercial premises that have not been let.

Also, if there are problems associated with health and safety regulations—planning, transport, insurance and things of that kind—can the Government address them as a matter of urgency?

I completely agree with my noble friend. We are most concerned to minimise online teaching and remote learning. Our children have been out of the classroom enough with Covid, and this House knows the seriousness of issues with attendance. We all know that this is the moment in the year when we want children in the classroom—on 4 September, or maybe 5 September if there is an inset day.

In relation to online teaching, perhaps it will reassure my noble friend if I say that we have already worked with 52 schools and mitigated over the last few months, before this change in policy when we identified a critical grade. The average number of days lost for those children was six. Six days is a lot. For some children it was more and for some it was none.

In the vast majority of those cases, the whole school does not have RAAC across all its roofs and floors; it is typically in a small area of the school. I bumped into someone this afternoon who was talking about their secondary school. They are able to reorganise the space in their school. They will miss one day of school tomorrow and then all the children will be back on Wednesday. That is in a big secondary school.

On my noble friend’s second point, in those first 52 cases, we are so grateful to other local schools, some of which have spare space and have bent over backwards to make sure that children do not miss a single day more than they need to.

My Lords, the safety of children in our schools is being compromised not just by RAAC construction. I remind the House of my interests, in particular as an adviser to Charter School Capital and as chair of the E-ACT multi-academy trust. In the trust, there is a secondary school with CLASP construction, meaning it has no foundations, has asbestos and desperately needs replacing. Another has external concrete cladding that is falling off, so we are spending over £50,000 a year just on scaffolding to catch it before it hurts anyone. When will the Government implement a comprehensive condition survey, not just for RAAC schools, and match it with proper investment to ensure the education budget is spent on education and not just on patching and mending the crumbling school estate?

I remind the noble Lord that the Government made a full survey of the school estate. We carried out the first one I think between 2017 and 2019 and we are in the middle of the second one at the moment. That looks at the condition grade across schools. I have the figures in front of me: in the first survey, 95% of individual condition grades—which literally look at the window frames; I am not sure about door handles but the walls, the roofs, et cetera—were graded as good or satisfactory, and 2.4% were poor or bad: 2.1% were poor and 0.3% were bad.

The noble Lord will also know that all our funding to schools for condition is prioritised based on condition need. He also knows that if there is an urgent request we will always consider it. We have already identified some the of so-called system builds, such as Laingspan and Intergrid. Almost all of that has been completely resolved and plans are in place for all of it to be removed. We have a programme of surveys starting later this year looking at the remaining construction types to understand them better and understand whether they might pose a risk.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a working teacher. I congratulate the Minister on the speed of her response to this development. We have heard a lot about buildings and children, but can the Government assure the House that they will provide extra support and counselling for senior leadership teams to reflect the extreme pressures during these difficult times, particularly those that have no local network in their area?

The noble Lord makes an important point. I visited a school on Friday where we identified RAAC earlier in the summer. It was about to reopen. I had not got down the drive and that was literally the first point that the head teacher raised. I take this opportunity to again thank all those head teachers who are dealing with this at the moment.

On the individual issue about what support to offer head teachers, that really would come better from the school itself, the trust or the local authority. For us to try to do that in Sanctuary Buildings might not be the best route—but, as I said, we will consider all reasonable requests for revenue funding and we absolutely recognise the pressure that this issue puts on school leaders.

My Lords, a Question that I have tabled on the general wider effects of RAAC has been set down as a topical Question for Wednesday, so for tonight I simply ask the Minister this. The Statement refers to the fact that a guide to RAAC was issued in February 2021. To whom was it issued, and can she say whether, in addition to being sent to the educational sector, the guide was also made available through other departments that are responsible for other public buildings of a wider kind?

The guidance that we have produced started in 2018, just to be clear. Once we were aware of the primary school that I referred to in the Statement that had collapsed, we introduced guidance in conjunction with the Local Government Association that went to all educational settings and responsible bodies. That was followed up with additional guidance in both 2021 and 2022.

As to other departments, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for raising that. The situation is very different in different estates in terms of the size and complexity of the estate. I think the education estate is uniquely large and complicated. If, for example, one were to think about the situation in the hospital estate, obviously hospitals are, first, much bigger buildings, so it is easier to move people around if one needs to put in mitigations, and, secondly, they have dedicated estates teams to manage any risks that are posed.

I am grateful to my noble friend and I share the relief, as I am sure all noble Lords do, that nobody has been injured as a result of this building material. I would be grateful if my noble friend could clarify something. The Statement says that 95% of the questionnaires sent out to schools with blocks built in the target era were completed. I note that there was a tweet asking schools to complete that questionnaire, and on the back of that questionnaire, surveys were taken out. So have the 5% that have not responded to the questionnaire been covered by direct visits or phone calls by the department?

I thank my noble friend for her question. The short answer is yes. We have had a dedicated team in the department following up and calling, in some cases several times, all the responsible bodies concerned. I wrote to all of them today, stressing the importance of returning the questionnaire by the end of this week.

I thank the Minister for the briefing earlier today, for the Statement and for the Government’s swift action, despite the fact that this is a very difficult time to be challenged in this way. Can the Minister confirm that most students who would receive free school meals are either being provided with an equivalent meal if being taught on alternative premises or that relevant financial allowances are being made to their parents to provide appropriate nutritious meals during their absence from school? Secondly, will she ensure that, if alternative provision in terms of buildings is necessary, adequate child protection assessments will be made before children are sent to other premises?

In relation to the noble Baroness’s question about free school meals, children who are eligible for free school meals will continue to receive free school meals in the setting that they attend, if it is not their normal school, and my understanding is that they will get a voucher or equivalent in the event that they have any days at home. The noble Baroness raised the issue of making sure that there is an adequate safeguarding assessment of any alternative sites. Our experience from the first 52 schools where this has happened is that, in the vast majority of cases, alternative sites have been other schools, which obviously makes that much more straightforward. However, the noble Baroness raises a good point in relation to that, and obviously we are particularly concerned about vulnerable children and children with special educational needs.

My Lords, the Minister points out the responsibility of the responsible bodies with respect to the buildings but also says how difficult this is for some responsible bodies. Some are as small as three schools in one multi-academy trust. Can the Minister be clear about the expectations on these responsible bodies for the monitoring as well as the maintenance of buildings, particularly at the strategic level? The Minister has just referred to a survey that the department itself carries out over a number of years, and I am now left unclear as to who is responsible for the long-term monitoring of potentially serious defects in school property.

On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, we set out the expectations for responsible bodies. I think it is safe to say that the local authorities are pretty clear what their responsibilities are. In relation to academy trusts, those responsibilities are set out in the Academy Trust Handbook. We actually strengthened, clarified and reinforced the language around that before we knew about the three schools; we did that earlier in the summer with a new updated version. This was just to make sure—reflecting the noble Baroness’s point—that there was absolutely no doubt about the practical steps that should reasonably be expected for responsible bodies to take.

I am glad of the opportunity to say that our condition data collection survey, which I referred to, is not in any way a blurring of the lines of responsibility between responsible bodies and the department. However, it allows us both to plan the quantum of funding that we need to give to those responsible bodies to maintain their buildings and to identify areas where there is greater deterioration or less. So we have a broad overview of the school estate, but that should not blur any lines in relation to responsibility.

My Lords, does that inform the quantum of money that the department gets from the Treasury, or does it just inform the quantum that is distributed among responsible bodies once the Treasury has decided what to give to the department?

It certainly informs the second although, as the noble Lord knows, larger academy trusts and local authorities have discretion to judge within their own school estate how they want to use that money. A number of things inform our discussions with the Treasury, of which the condition data survey is one, but it is definitely not the only thing.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware of a school that has been particularly badly affected: Myton School in Warwick, where 1,800 pupils face losing three days of school due to a delay to the start of term. This is a school with two main buildings dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, which were described as being both old and “in disrepair”. It is the first floor of the lower school building that is affected.

My question, informed by this case, is twofold. First, this school is now getting an annual budget for maintenance of £35,000, which is a quarter of what it was receiving, in pounds, in 2010. This is a school in disrepair. Will the Government look at the situation that has arisen with RAAC and see that there needs to be a much broader review and a much greater injection into funds for school maintenance?

Secondly, on a very specific point, the Education Secretary in the other place has said that each school will have a dedicated caseworker, with whom they will have contact to help them deal with any issues so that the department can liaise. The BBC reported late this afternoon that this school, which has clearly been very badly affected, has yet to hear from the department. The head teacher was expecting a phone call over the weekend and did not receive it. When will contact be made by all the caseworkers to the affected schools?

In relation to the injection of capital, I know the noble Baroness will have heard the Chancellor say that we will be making the money available in both the short and longer term to address the issues that have arisen from this. If the noble Baroness wants to write to me separately with the name of that school—or I can look in Hansard, since I did not catch the name—I will be very happy to follow that up. We have been tracking every day since we started trying to reach schools. I have been reassured that attempts have been made to speak to every single school, and my understanding was that we had done so. I hope that BBC report might be hours out of date, but if not then I am happy to follow that up tonight if that would be helpful.

Will the Minister explain the remarks of Jonathan Slater, the Permanent Secretary, on Radio 4 today? In talking about the capital programme for schools, including the conditions survey that the Minister has mentioned, he pointed out that in order to deal with RAAC and other capital improvements that were needed in schools, there was a funding need of 300 to 400 schools to be done each year. When the department bid to the Treasury for that money, it was given money for 50 schools by the then Chancellor, who is now Prime Minister. Does the Minister agree with me, and I think many of us, that that is not satisfactory, there needs to be a change of policy, and capital investment urgently needs to go into our schools to deal with RAAC and other issues?

We have made significant investments in our schools—£15 billion since 2015, and £19 billion in this spending review period. I mentioned that we have added 1 million school places since 2010. We have rebuilt over 500 schools, we have committed to another 400 and we have another 100 in the pipeline. The noble Lord will have heard my right honourable friend the Minister for School Standards saying that we always ask for as much money as we can get from the Treasury. I say again that where there are urgent needs we always deal with them, but we have difficult prioritisation choices to make.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and her department on a crisis well handled and on dealing with the rather innovative interpretation of the Civil Service Code that she will have encountered this morning, which I hope the next Government will not have to suffer from, given the importance of confidentiality in running a Government. Does she think there is a longer-term learning to come from the whole episode of RAAC? Where we innovate substantially in building methods, particularly in situations like schools, we should, at the beginning, install monitoring programmes to understand how these materials are working out in practice. We are looking at big changes to do with decarbonising construction, and we risk repeating this whole cycle over again if we are not careful.

My noble friend makes a good point. More broadly, making sure that we have a deep technical understanding about how these building materials develop over time is critical.

With the leave of the House, I have an answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett: the school was surveyed on Friday. We are getting in touch with them as we speak.