RAAC in Durham: a crisis years in the making?

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The senior leadership at St. Leonard’s School in north-west Durham, had to suspend in-person teaching for the start of this academic year due to the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) scandal that has shaken schools across the country. This disruption follows three years of disrupted learning, initially due to the Covid-19 epidemic and then due to teacher strikes. The school, one of the eleven  affected in the North East, has since undergone emergency negotiations with the Department for Education and Durham University, meaning older students will be taught in some University Buildings and at the Radisson Hotel temporarily, while younger students will use rooms that are unaffected by RAAC. 

RAAC was initially a solution found by planning authorities to the problem of the post-Second World War baby-boom that required expanding education provisions, whilst there was also a shortage of building materials caused by the war. The material that the planners alighted on was light, cheap to manufacture and easy to install in comparison to labour intensive brick-laying and roof-tiling. RAAC was used to construct the large open-plan flat-roofed designed schools, largely built between the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s.

At St. Leonard’s, the risk had been identified in 2006.

This material that was billed as a cheap solution to a post-war infrastructure problem, is now at the end of its life and becoming dangerous. The issue with the material has long been identified; industry experts had issued advice to the government, first in the late 1990s, and more recently after a primary school staff-room roof collapsed in 2018. 

For instance, at St. Leonard’s, the risk had been identified in 2006. Governors campaigned for a new building, funding for which was eventually granted through New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, has blamed the current government for cancelling the program which had aimed to renovate all UK schools over a fifteen to twenty year period. Despite a renewal of the bid to renovate St Leonards in 2017, the school did not  receive a central government grant to fix the dangerous roof.

Following the last minute decision to close at-risk schools before the start of the new term, many have turned their anger towards the Department for Education and its Secretary, Gillian Keegan. Whilst both the government and schools have been aware of the danger for a long time, local authorities and academy trusts – whose responsibility it is to maintain school buildings – are at the whim of central government for the funds to carry out repairs.

Image: Russell Wills via Geograph

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