School safety is rightly the present priority. In turn, we expect the focus to alight on other public buildings to include social housing.
In our article on Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete school closures; published on 1 September 2023, we examined the timeline of warnings on the danger of RAAC in public buildings.
In light of growing criticism from all quarters, we consider both the extent to which the current list of 156 partial or fully closed schools will increase and report on how the added complication of asbestos presence will hamper the repair or replacement of school buildings.
List of closures
The Department for Education appeared initially reluctant to publish the list of 156 schools with a confirmed presence of RAAC with the risk of collapse held to be "critical – very likely". The Education Minister, however, yesterday (4 September 2023), in a statement to the House of Commons, promised to publish a list of all schools affected and to keep this "regularly updated", (our emphasis). The clear inference is that the list will (as we cautioned on 1 September 2023), increase over the coming weeks and months.
The Journal, Sec Ed, in a prescient article published on 28 June
2023; ("The schools built with concrete that is susceptible to
failure") references Department for Education estimates in May
2023 that 14,900 schools were potentially affected by RAAC, of
which 6,300 had been inspected at that time. RAAC was believed to
be potentially present in 572 of the 6,300 schools inspected.
The presently unanswered questions are:
- The presence or otherwise of RAAC in the remaining 8,600 schools which had not been inspected as of May this year
- Whether RAAC has now been definitively identified in the 572 schools which had a "potential RAAC issue"
The article (28 June 2023) highlights both the concern of the National Audit Office "of the Department for Education's slow progress on this issue" and Meg Hillier, MP and Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts in the House of Commons, as stating "worryingly, the government does not know how many schools may be unsafe".
Massive uncertainty currently hangs over the state of many public buildings. The position may be best summarised by James Porter, a Partner in the Building firm Rapleys, which has been investigating RAAC for three years (as reported by i-News, 4 September 2023):
Asbestos in school buildings
Asbestos is present in at least 80 % of schools nationwide, with RAAC and asbestos believed to coexist in many of the same buildings. The current HSE/governmental advice is that asbestos will be safe if it is left undisturbed.
In a scenario, however, where a roof crumbles or collapses, the risk of the release of asbestos fibres increases and with it the prospect of fibres being inhaled by pupils and teaching staff. The link between asbestos exposure and both the fatal cancer mesothelioma and lung cancer have been established for decades. The HSE estimates that past asbestos exposure is responsible for 5,000 deaths each year.
How schools are managing asbestos
The HSE conducted an inspection of 421 primary and secondary schools between September 2022 and March 2023. It released its report in July 2023. Although the HSE's main conclusion was that "most (schools) were complying with their legal duties and had effective systems in place to manage asbestos containing material", the report also highlighted that:
- 7 % had significant enough failings to be subject to
enforcement proceedings, 28 improvement notices
were served and 2 prohibition notices were issued.
- A further 112 schools (of 431 inspected) were sent a letter
listing the steps to be taken to achieve full
The Sunday Times in its campaign, "Act now on Asbestos" (publication- 3 September 2023), referenced RAAC and asbestos as presenting a "perfect storm" of problems, highlighting the difficulty of visually detecting the presence of asbestos concealed between panels or in ceiling voids.
The concern is that even if schools or local authorities adopt a proactive approach to asbestos management, its presence may go undetected and with it the risk of inhalation of asbestos fibres and respiratory injury.
National media coverage of RAAC shows no sign of abating as more and more information is released into the public domain and the albatross of blame circles on a variety of individuals and government departments.
School safety is rightly the present priority. In turn, we expect the focus to alight on other public buildings to include social housing. Whilst the scale of the problem and the cost of remediation are presently unknown, the evidence currently available suggests both will be ultimately breathtaking.
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