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Schools in England told to be ready to evacuate buildings at risk of collapse

Officials are making hurried calls urging school leaders to draw up contingency plans for buildings at risk of collapse because of crumbling concrete, the Guardian has learned.

Department for Education documents show that staff have been instructed to contact leaders of England’s schools and academies to check they are prepared to evacuate buildings constructed from reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) at short notice, and relocate pupils to alternatives such as portable accommodation or even other schools in their area.

While the dangers of ageing RAAC buildings have been highlighted since a 2018 roof collapse at a primary school in Kent, the DfE’s ring-round comes just a few days before the start of the new school year in England.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “This is shocking evidence of a department in disarray. With days to go before the start of term and despite knowing about the potential risks posed by reinforced aerated autoclave concrete for months, [ministers] are now phoning schools to ask them if they are ready to close, further disrupting children’s education.

“The education secretary needs to tell parents how many schools are affected, whether their children are safe at school, and just what on earth is going on.”

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The fact that officials are rushing around days before the beginning of the new term making calls to schools about contingency plans in case buildings collapse is symptomatic of the government’s neglect of the school estate. The government needs to provide the necessary investment to make all school buildings safe and to replace those that are not fit for purpose.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said the safety of pupils and teachers was its “utmost” priority. “We have been engaging with schools and responsible bodies about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018 and subsequently published guidance on identifying and managing it.

“As part of this work schools have been asked to inform the department if they believe RAAC is present on their estate. Where we confirm it is present, we work with individual education settings on how to manage RAAC and develop contingency plans to minimise any disruption to education.”

The internal documents seen by the Guardian reveal the DfE’s urgent efforts to prepare schools for upheaval if their buildings have been found to include unstable RAAC, amid fears the lightweight concrete commonly used in construction between the 1950s and mid-1990s is at risk of collapse.

The decaying concrete has been found in 65 schools in England after nearly 200 completed surveys, with 24 requiring emergency action, according to a report by the National Audit Office. The number of schools at risk is expected to increase when the results of surveys of 572 schools with suspected RAAC are published by the DfE.

Four schools were shut in April and June after RAAC was discovered in their buildings.

The DfE’s script tells school leaders that “all spaces with confirmed RAAC – even if they are assessed as ‘non-critical’ … must have adequate contingencies in place”. “This should include preparations for the eventuality that they are taken out of use and vacated at short notice until mitigations are in place for the spaces to be made safe.”

A Q&A section of the script includes the question: “Will we have to evacuate all buildings?” The DfE response is: “We want to make sure all responsible bodies are prepared for this eventuality, but we are not giving this advice at present.”

School leaders are told that proposed emergency measures “in some cases require school year groups to be displaced across multiple schools”, and that they should be considering moving IT equipment and making transport arrangements.

The DfE advises school leaders to “use your existing network of contacts across local schools and the local authority to assist in managing the impact of multiple closures”.

The document’s background notes say the DfE “has serious concerns about the integrity of RAAC panels”. It describes three stages of disruption: short term, of up to one month, which “could include school closure and remote learning as a last resort”; medium term, which could involve temporary accommodation for up to three years; and long term, possibly involving schools being rebuilt.

The RAAC fears follow revelations that the DfE has ordered three recently built schools to close buildings over safety concerns involving modular, off-site construction methods.

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