Durham school shut over RAAC safety concerns

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St Leonard’s Catholic School has been shut down by the Department for Education (DfE) due to the presence of a type of concrete detrimental to building security.

It is amongst one of four schools to be closed in County Durham, the others being Ferryhill School, St Bede’s Catholic School, and Byron Sixth Form College.

Over 100 schools across the country have been told to close buildings containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which was found to be the cause of a roof collapsing in a primary school in Kent in 2018.

RAAC is a cheaper and less durable alternative to regular concrete primarily used between the 1950s and mid-1990s in the construction of schools. It is aerated, meaning it contains small ‘bubbles’ of air, which makes it more vulnerable to structural damage. RAAC has a standard lifespan of only thirty years.

St Leonard’s Catholic School, a secondary school and sixth form near Aykley Heads, announced to parents and carers on the 1st September that the school had been informed on the previous day (31st August) that it would not be allowed to open in September.

“This is a very difficult time for all of us; first and foremost, our pupils. We are so disappointed at the timing of this decision in terms of being able to put solutions in place”

Chris Hammill

The letter, signed by headteacher Mr Chris Hammill, said that: “From our initial understanding we may be able to use some limited buildings and are currently thinking through how we best support our pupils at this time.

“This is a very difficult time for all of us; first and foremost, our pupils. We are so disappointed at the timing of this decision in terms of being able to put solutions in place.”

Mr Nick Hurn, CEO of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, said that, whilst the school is “already lucky enough to have been working with the DfE on plans for a rebuild of our school, on our existing site,” this rebuild will not be completed “for another three years or so.”

“As a leadership team, we are working with the DfE now to try and put appropriate safety measures in place, and to recommence the education of our St Leonard’s children as soon as possible,” he wrote to parents and carers.

“I’m finding the whole situation very frustrating, and worry about the long-term impact this will have on my children”

One parent told Palatinate that they were “devastated” for their children to be missing school, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“My son in particular does not cope well with home learning, and it is really knocking his confidence. I’m finding the whole situation very frustrating, and worry about the long-term impact this will have on my children,” they continued.

The School has since announced that it hopes that students in years 7, 8, and 9 will be able to use the remaining safe buildings in the school, whilst older pupils will likely be taught in Durham University facilities.

An update to parents explained that Durham University has “offered the school use of their specialist science labs” for A Level classes, whilst online learning has resumed for all pupils who are not in school.

“The situation is utterly shambolic, schools should be safe havens for children and ministers must be held accountable”

Mary K Foy MP

In her statement on the school closure, Mary Kelly Foy, MP for City of Durham, expressed her anger at the lack of urgency and support from the government during this nationwide school closure.

“Surveys were conducted earlier this year, and the school received confirmation this Spring that RAAC was present on site; however, it was not until yesterday afternoon that further guidance was provided by the DfE that the school must remain closed,” she wrote.

“I understand that, in addition to the concerns that families will have regarding the disruption caused to their children’s education, amid a cost-of-living crisis many will also be worried about access to free school meals, the cost of travelling to and from alternative sites of education, and the cost of childcare or loss of earnings due to this closure.

“The situation is utterly shambolic, schools should be safe havens for children and ministers must be held accountable. The government has been aware of the structural flaws of RAAC in school buildings since 2018. I am utterly appalled by the failure to prepare for this eventuality, proving that the government has sunk to a new level of rank incompetence.”

Ms Foy gave her thanks to Durham University when speaking in Parliament on the 4th September, saying: “I want to put on record my thanks to Durham University who are stepping up and trying to be as proactive as they can to help solve this situation.”

Image: Russel Wills via Wikimedia Commons

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