By Socialist Alternative members in NEU
Just as thousands of young people are starting term, excited to start new schools or new courses, and thousands of parents are relieved to see them back in a routine of learning, the Tories have delivered the bombshell that over 100 school buildings are unfit, dangerous and urgently in need of remedial work.
At next to no notice, school heads and local authorities are scrambling to find alternative accommodation and to order remedial work, which will not be easy if several schools are affected in the same area. In some areas such as Leicester, term had already begun and schools had already opened, only to close again.
In a move typical of this government’s ‘1984’ approach to public relations, no list of affected schools will be provided. Schools Minister Nick Gibb has said that the government will pay “all capital costs”, leaving unanswered the question of whether removal costs, temporary hire of tents, portaloos and other amenities will be covered.
But the greatest crime is the Tories’ indifference and neglect of the public sector buildings children are taught in. Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is lighter and less durable than traditional reinforced concrete. It deteriorates over time and is subject to sudden failure, especially in wet conditions. Its use was discontinued in the 1990s and it rapidly emerged that it had a lifespan of 30 years, which means a serious risk exists for any school – or hospital, or court, or social housing where it was employed.
Gibb has acknowledged that RAAC is present in 156 schools, but that may turn out to be an under-estimate when the results of surveys of over 500 schools are completed. Structural failure of RAAC has been known about since 2018 when a beam in a Kent school failed. Yet it is only now, when a beam which was thought to be safe has collapsed, that the government has acted in panic.
In 2010, when the Tories came to power, most schools were under local authority control, with teams of surveyors and safety professionals who, in theory at least, would survey and monitor school buildings and recommend action. Since then, the austerity cuts which have rained down on local authorities have hollowed out expertise in town halls, while the relentless drive to create academies has severed the connection to local authorities.
The pressure has been on local authorities to close schools and sell off spare capacity for development – where will the affected schools be transferred to now? One of the RAAC affected schools in Lambeth is having to move to a nearby school which had closed but not yet flattened for housing. As the NHS discovered under Covid, it is no good running ‘hot’ at 95% of capacity, when if there is a crisis you need more capacity in reserve!
Crucial questions must now be answered. Socialist Alternative calls for a trade union and labour movement inquiry into this scandal, involving the NEU, UNISON, GMB and Unite Construction, parents and school students to answer these questions:
- What was known about the thermal and structural qualities of RAAC in the 1960s?
- What the reason for using materials with only a 30 year life span?
- What other health and safety issues are emerging from the last twenty years of PFI construction?
- How can all school buildings be made safe and fit for purpose?
- Trade unions must have access to all results of surveys and investigations. Full transparency is required!
- NEU in particular to step up its commitment to health and safety. initiate and expand local health and safety committees, reps’ training and all necessary for the union to fight for genuine safety.
- The government must fund all costs incurred by schools, including removal, hire of premises, provision of alternative meals and replacing equipment stored in decommissioned areas.
- End PFI schemes now. Cancel all future payments. Maintenance should be provided by local authorities’ in-house construction teams.
- End academisation! Revert all academies to local authority control.
- Nationalisation of the construction industry under democratic workers control, as part of a socialist plan for education and housing.