School closures: 'Safety first' call over any Lancaster or Morecambe school where there is doubt over dangerous RAAC crumbly concrete
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Ian Watkinson, Lancashire’s representative on the National Education Union (NEU) executive and chair of its health and safety committee - said that a “safety first approach” was necessary.
He was speaking after the Education Secretary said that a reported 450 schools across the country where reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete - or RAAC - could be lurking would be inspected within the next two weeks.
Gillian Keegan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning that she had increased the number of building surveyors being deployed to carry out the necessary assessments - and stressed that the proportion of affected schools so far identified nationwide meant that “most of” of the 450 would not contain RAAC.
The material - used in building construction during the second half of the 20th century - can collapse without warning when it reaches the end of its lifespan.
Ms. Keegan also admitted that around 1,500 schools across England - 10 percent of the total - were yet to complete a self-assessment questionnaire regarding the possible presence of RAAC, a process which has been used as the basis for deciding whether follow-up surveys are necessary.
Lancashire County Council announced last week that it was carrying out further “detailed surveys” on what it described as "a small number" of schools. But it declined to identify them or confirm the exact number.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that those extra checks have not arisen as a result of the outcome of the initial questionnaires nor because those documents were not completed.
County Hall has not confirmed whether any of the 303 maintained Lancashire schools for which it is the “responsible authority” have yet to fill in a questionnaire, as ordered by the government last year - nor whether further surveys are planned or needed in schools where a RAAC presence is suspected.
However, ther LDRS understands that the authority does not expect to find any further RAAC in its schools, based on the information it has to hand so far. It says that its additional checks are being conducted on schools which have had extensions added during the period of RAAC use.
Church dioceses and academy trusts are the responsible authorities for assessing the RAAC situation in their schools, which largely make up the remainder of the 628 total number of school facilities in Lancashire.
The Catholic Diocese of Lancaster and the Church of England Diocese of Blackburn - which both operate schools across the county - have yet to respond to questions from the LDRS about whether all of their facilities have completed their initial questionnaires and if any of them are amongst the 450 nationally where additional assessments are necessary.
So far two Lancashire schools have been closed - both in Preston - initially just for two days while surveys are carried out.
Nationally, 104 schools have been told to shut, while mitigation measures have been put in place at over 50 others. The government has so far not published a comprehensive list, but Ms. Keegan told Radio 4 that it would be issued later this week.
Although stopping short of calling for any more facilities to close at this stage, Ian Watkinson has urged caution over the 450 nationally where RAAC is suspected but not yet confirmed.
“It’s got to be a safety first approach if there's any doubt whatsoever that a school is at imminent risk of collapse or partial collapse - whether that’s the ceiling coming in or something along those lines.
“The safety of children and staff has to come first in those schools,” said Mr. Watkinson, adding that he did not know enough about the circumstances of the reported 450 tally to say exactly what action should be taken.
However, he did tell the LDRS that the government has “known for a long time that there's a problem” with RAAC - and that leaving closure orders and additional surveys until just before the start of term "is frankly ridiculous".
The collapse of a school roof in Kent in 2018 was linked to RAAC, but the government says that it is only this summer that it has been determined that RAAC not yet deemed to be in a “critical” state might nevertheless pose a risk - promoting it to act.
The LDRS approached the Department for Education (DfE) for comment on the issues raised by Ian Watkinson. A spokesperson said: “We have been clear since Thursday about the number of schools immediately impacted by RAAC.
“It is vital that schools are given time to inform parents and consider their next steps, with extensive support from our caseworkers, before the list of affected schools is published. The Education Secretary will inform Parliament next week of the plan to keep parents and the public updated on the issue.
“Fifty-two of the 156 RAAC cases identified already have mitigations in place, and while some of the remaining projects will be more complex, many will range from just a single building on a wider estate, down to a single classroom.
“We are incredibly grateful to school and college leaders for their work with us at pace to make sure that where children are affected, disruption is kept to a minimum, and in the even rarer cases where remote learning is required, [that] it is for a matter of days, not weeks.”
Meanwhile, issuing an update on the situation in Lancashire, a Lancashire County Council spokesperson said: "There are no safety concerns at this time relating to presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in the 303 maintained schools the county council is responsible for.
"As a precautionary measure, we are carrying out detailed surveys on a small number of older schools that have had extensions and aim to have these concluded by the end of this week.
"This is in addition to visual surveys carried out by us earlier this year at a number of maintained schools where a possible presence [of] RAAC was identified.
"The DfE is leading on the national investigation and is liaising directly with schools where a Diocese or Multi Academy Trust is the responsible body.
"We were made aware over the weekend that the Lancaster Diocese has instructed Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Fulwood to close for two days pending further investigation.
“The presence of RAAC has been identified in some areas of the school. While we are not the responsible body for the school, we will work with the Diocese should they require support with this matter.
“We have also been made aware that Fulwood Academy has closed for two days to allow it to undertake a new survey of the building, although no RAAC has yet to be identified and we understand the closure is precautionary.
"Parents will be contacted by their school if their school is impacted by this issue."