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RAAC – What the concrete crisis tells us about politicians’ priorities

Photo of broken RAAC masonry following a building's demolition

The ‘concrete crisis’ has shown where the priorities of successive governments really lay, says Carl Smith – not with young people or teachers…

Carl Smith
by Carl Smith
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When presented with a challenging mix of post-war debt and a baby boom, how do you build lots of inexpensive public buildings, and particularly schools, quickly? Back then, RAAC (reinforced autoclave aerated concrete) was the answer.

RAAC shelf life

It was a wonder material whose time had come, and eager governments took full advantage. It was light, thermally efficient and easy to make. The perfect combination – albeit on the understanding that it had a short shelf life of around 40 years. If it were to remain in place any longer, it would be liable to collapse.

How suddenly wasn’t properly understood. But by the 1980s, it was fast becoming clear that it shouldn’t be used in any buildings intended for long term use.

The problem with public buildings, though, is that once they’re built and people start using them, they become very difficult and expensive to replace.

Five-year cycles

In our country’s democracy, politicians tend to work in five-year cycles. Anything requiring a longer-term view is typically not treated as a priority.

Voters are generally reluctant to vote for parties intending to raise taxes. This is particularly true when the promised benefits will only become clear over 20 to 30 years.

So the buildings remain in place, and replacing them becomes someone else’s problem… except when they go wrong. And RAAC has gone very wrong indeed.

Schools built with RAAC in the 1950s are now 70 years old. Even those built in the 1970s are beyond their natural 40-year expected lifespans. The issue has been known about and understood for years.

It’s one of the many reasons why the last Labour government embarked on its Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Whatever the merits of that particular initiative, it at least meant that lots of schools were going to be rebuilt.

My own school had been scheduled for rebuilding in 2016. Like many, it was crumbling to the point where a full rebuild was going to be more cost effective than a patch-up. It was also very energy inefficient and expensive to heat.

None of that mattered to Michael Gove, though. The fact that it would have to be rebuilt sooner or later was neither here nor there; later was politically more convenient, so that was that. The BSF programme was cancelled with nothing to replace it.

Act of vandalism

This act of vandalism now threatens the lives of thousands of children, young people and staff. In a sense, the present Education Secretary is simply unlucky to be around at the time when ‘Must do soon’ became ‘Must do immediately.’ However, the subsequent revelation that the budget for a proposed new school rebuilding programme was halved in 2021 isn’t so easily excused.

The school estate has been conveniently left to wrack and ruin for years. The responsibility for this lies with anyone in the past who ultimately decided to do nothing about it.

My school is now on the new rebuilding programme. It’s among a group scheduled to ‘enter delivery’ from April 2025. That’s fully nine years after it would have been rebuilt under BSF.

In that time it has become horrifically expensive to heat and subject to frequent water leaks. In June a lightning strike ripped the roof off the entire main building. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any RAAC, since most of the site was built pre-war, but that’s little comfort.

Different standards

RAAC can kill, as can asbestos. There are many problems with the school estate which, while not immediately life-threatening, would never be tolerated in the premises housing major companies. It would be bad for business. Employees would refuse to work there. Yet when it comes to children and young people, different standards seem to apply. School leaders may protest, but there are other priorities and elections must be won.

Even now, at the time of writing, the apparent answer to the immediate problem is to kick other problems even further down the road. Taking money out of the existing capital budget for schools, rather than putting new money into the system, simply means that all those other desperately needed improvements to school buildings will be delayed yet further.

It seems that when it comes to school building, the lessons are never learned.

Carl Smith (@SmithCarl19530) is the principal of Casterton College, Rutland, has written on a range of educational topics and is a regular contributor to ASCL’s Leader magazine

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