Appleton school in Benfleet, one fo the schools forced to close due to RAAC. Photo: Trevor Harris/CC
Appleton school in Benfleet, one fo the schools forced to close due to RAAC. Photo: Trevor Harris/CC

Emily, Teacher

Suddenly on 1 September, over 100 school closures were announced due to the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), used to construct buildings between the 1950s-90s in Britain. RAAC is a cheaper alternative to concrete, filled with bubbles, and is at risk of crumbling. Where it has been used in schools and colleges, it jeopardises the safety of children, school staff and others. At the schools forced to close, education staff spent their Friday scrambling to empty classrooms in fear of collapse before the term began.

Once again, government failings have meant workers forced to rectify errors out of their control. Many teachers across the UK will have experienced working in classrooms with asbestos, no heating, broken windows, structural damage, and a concerning lack of resources and equipment.

In a press release, the National Education Union (NEU) blames the government’s lack of investment in school buildings. Education facilities across the country are in a “dire state of disrepair”. The Tory government has failed to treat this issue with the urgency needed to ensure schools are safe for the beginning of the year and, as we go to press, still not having published the full list of schools with RAAC demanded by the NEU. Sunak says “extra money will be available” but this should come from the pockets of the super-rich, not paid for by cuts to our services!

More than a third of school buildings past their estimated design lifespan

So far 156 schools have been found to contain RAAC in England, meaning accommodations will have to be made for anyone planning to return to school. Many schools has delayed start dates, causing immense pressure for working and single-parent families. So far there have been no announcement on how to access free school meals while schools remain closed. For these families, the only meal on offer from the Tories is aerated concrete crumble!

The lack of concern from the government, putting cost-cutting and profit before safety, has caused the tragic loss of lives. Health and education staff have died from asbestos-caused mesothelioma, and combustible cladding led to the deaths of 72 people in the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

1 in 10 pupils in buildings in need of repair or refurbish

Who else is working in buildings at risk of collapse? Which hospitals, universities, and others have RAAC in them? All workers deserve to go to work not worrying if they are working in unsafe buildings, we need united action by unions to demand inspections are carried out, and when they are, the results are known and the repairs needed are paid for.

We need safety regulations drawn up by workers and unions themselves and remedial works should be under democratic oversight by school unions and parents. Nationalise the big construction and building firms under democratic workers’ control to ensure the safety of building materials is put before the cheapest option.

We demand:

  • Publication of the safety status of all education buildings, including links to asbestos
  • Immediate safety works and rebuilding carried out by councils under the democratic oversight of school trade unions and parents, and fully funded by the government
  • Workers’ control of workplace safety
  • NEU and school unions must be prepared to back up demands on safety with industrial action
  • Scrap all PFI contracts. Stop academisation
  • Stop cuts. Full funding for schools and all public services
  • Tories out. For a new mass workers’ party armed with a socialist programme

Schools at risk of collapse – union action to reverse decades of cuts

Sean McCauley, former NEU executive member

NEU demanded publication of RAAC list for months

In May and June 2023, the National Education Union (NEU) called for the list of schools most at risk of collapse to be published. The government was forced, just a few days before the start of term, to announce that some or all of 104 schools’ buildings are unsafe and cannot be used. They seemingly had to act after a beam collapse in a school building previously declared safe.

Initially, the government said it would not be covering the costs of emergency temporary accommodation or additional transport, but it U-turned less than 24 hours later in the face of outrage from unions, heads, staff and parents.

A risk to life known for more than a year

In June, the government raised the risk alert level over school buildings collapsing, from “critical – likely” to “critical – very likely”. The risk to the lives of pupils and staff has not just suddenly come to light!

In a government document, leaked in May 2022, they knew then that the state of disrepair in some schools is ‘a risk to life’. Since 2010, capital spending has declined by 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms. And the fund for school repairs was cut by prime minister Rishi Sunak himself while he was chancellor – funding only 50 of the 3-400 required school rebuilds a year.

Asbestos compounds the problem

The last Department for Education (DfE) annual report found the risk of building collapse is most acute in ‘system-built’ buildings between 1945 and 1970. Almost 14,000 of these have been identified as containing asbestos – around 85% of schools still have it, one of these collapsing could cause major health problems. Since 1980, more than 400 school teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma in Britain, 300 having died since 2001.

£13.8 billion needed

The National Audit Office highlighted in its 2017 report ‘Capital Funding for Schools’ that £6.7 billion was needed to restore all school buildings to satisfactory condition, and a further £7.1 billion to bring parts of school buildings from satisfactory to good. The NEU believes these figures are likely to be an underestimate, based on the DfE’s 2014 Property Data Survey, not taking into account three years further deterioration.

Labour has no answer

The NEU has pointed out that if the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government had not cut Labour’s school rebuilding programme in 2010, £27 billion more would now have been spent on school and college buildings. However, what is not pointed out is that in order to pay for previous rebuilds in the 2000s, Labour accelerated the use of now-discredited Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).

PFIs meant a consortium of private companies raised money on commercial markets to carry out rebuilds, rather than allowing councils to do it through the far lower cost Public Works Loan Board. All the risk under PFI was shouldered by public bodies, with repayments to the private sector guaranteed. This has resulted in cuts to services and redundancies in schools, hospitals and other parts of the public sector where PFIs were used. Councils repay the cost of a PFI scheme over a 30-year period, with considerable mark-up. This has often ended up ten times the original cost of the rebuild, going straight to the profits of big businesses.

A socialist solution is needed

We can have no confidence that Keir Starmer will come up with a solution to school buildings in disrepair. While criticising the Tory party, Labour front-bench politicians haven’t committed to providing the money needed to make public buildings safe.

We need a party that stands up for the staff, pupils, parents and families, one that will nationalise the banks and big businesses to democratically run society for the good of us all, not for the profits of a few. Workers controlling the vast wealth and resources in society would be able to invest to make our education system fit for purpose – with safe buildings and wages workers can live on.

At the first NEU executive meeting of the new term on 2 September, Socialist Party members proposed that the NEU should call a protest at the Department of Education or Downing Street, demanding funding and safe buildings. This was agreed.