School for children with special needs ‘thrown into chaos’ due to aerated concrete

Parents of children with special needs were called just days before the start of the new term to be told their school had to shut as it is fitted with a concrete that could suddenly collapse.

Louise Robinson, headteacher of Kingsdown School in Southend, Essex, called parents of students, who are aged between three and 14 and have severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning difficulties, physical disabilities and associated learning difficulties, on Thursday to tell them the news that the school will be closed next week due to the aerated concrete.

It comes amid chaos across the country as 104 schools and colleges have been told by the Department for Education (DfE) to partially or fully close buildings just as students prepare to return after the summer holidays.

The Government has not identified the schools but the list also includes: Parks Primary, Mayflower Primary School and Willowbrook Mead Primary Academy in Leicester; Cranbourne College in Basingstoke; Crossflatts Primary School and Eldwick Primary School in Bingley, near Bradford; Abbey Lane Primary School in Sheffield; Scalby School in Scarborough; St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham; and Corpus Christi Catholic School in Brixton, London.

Ms Robinson said: “Instead of preparing to welcome our students back to class, we’re having to call parents to have very difficult conversations about the fact the school is closed next week.

“We’re hoping that a solution can be found that allows us to open the school, at least partially, but that entirely relies on ensuring the safety of our pupils and staff, and approval by DfE.”

The school’s main building has been ordered to close, which has special equipment inside that the students need and cannot be accessed.

Lydia Hyde, Labour and Co-operative Party councillor for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, said the situation was “awful” and a plan should have been made in March when the school was first inspected.

She added: “The main building of the school has been affected, no-one can go in it, it’s riddled with the stuff unfortunately.

“It’s a special educational needs school, there’s special equipment in there, some customised for certain children, at the moment we can’t get to that.

“We know that it’s going to be closed for at least the next week, we don’t know beyond that.

“It’s the right decision that the children aren’t going back to this school as it is unsafe, this should have been sorted out months ago, the Local Government Association has been warning the Government for a long time.

“The school was first inspected in March, that’s when a plan should have been made, but that hasn’t happened.”

Ms Hyde added that the situation is particularly bad for these students as “change can be detrimental”.

“Weeks before school starts there will be meetings about school transport, getting the students used to it and understanding what is going to happen,” she added.

“The impact on the families, it’s difficult enough to get babysitting arrangements, but for children with additional needs it’s virtually impossible.

“We’re going to see parents not being able to go to work, siblings where parents would have taken them to school might not be able to.

“It causes a huge amount of chaos for these children, it’s not suitable to put up a marquee in a field, we need to be looking at getting access to the specialised equipment and finding alternative provision that is set up and safe for them for their education.

“Southend Council is doing everything to find somewhere suitable.

“There’s going to be big questions asked about how this was allowed to happen, why the families have been thrown into such chaos, the first thing is to ensure the children are back into education as soon as possible.”

Councillor Helen Boyd, cabinet member for children’s services, education and learning, added: “The last thing anyone wants is for a tragedy to occur and for that reason, the DfE have been clear that there is absolutely no choice but to close the school.”

Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) was also found in a Sheffield school, where “alternative meal arrangements” will be in place while the work costing £620,000 is carried out.

The concrete was found at Abbey Lane Primary School in the kitchen area.

Councillor Dawn Dale, chairwoman of the education, children and families policy committee at Sheffield City Council, said that work started in July, which will cost £620,000 from the local authority’s capital budgets, and is expected to be completed by December 1.

Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, labelled the situation schools have been put in “appalling”.

She said: “Raac was identified as an issue back in 2018 and there remain schools around the country which the Government do not know if they contain this material and are therefore a risk to children.

“Nor has the Government funded the works to protect children – the council has funded the cost of a new roof, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“It is appalling that the Government has allowed schools across the country to fall into such dilapidation and are now expecting councils and schools to foot the bill. Just days before children return to school after the summer break, it is totally unacceptable that children, schools and parents and carers have been put in this position.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Essex County Council said three local authority schools have Raac and the council is “working closely with these schools to minimise any disruption to learning”.

City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council said access to areas of Crossflatts Primary School and Eldwick Primary School where Raac is present is prohibited and at least eight teaching spaces have been lost, alongside other staffing facilities across both sites and the loss of the kitchen at Crossflatts.

Education will continue at the schools in the short term with alterations to the safe areas so that all children can be accommodated on the school sites.

A longer term plan is in place to provide temporary classrooms on both school sites. These have been ordered and, following relevant ground works on both sites should arrive within the next eight to 10 weeks at Crossflatts and 14 to 16 weeks at Eldwick.

Over in Leicester, the city council said the Raac notification for Parks Primary and Mayflower Primary School came before the summer holidays, and alternative accomodation was arranged, but Willowbrook Mead Primary Academy was only identified on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the council added that they will be working with the academy trust “to offer support and advice to try to minimise disruption to pupils”.

And temporary works have been carried out in one section of Cranbourne College in Basingstoke to make sure it is safe and another area has been taken out of use since the beginning of the year, but the school is expected to open as normal.

Nick Hurn, chief executive of Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, wrote to parents of students at St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham to say a DfE-commissioned survey had identified that Raac panels were used in the construction of the building.

“As a result, the DfE directed the Trust yesterday afternoon that they have taken the difficult decision to temporarily deem St Leonard’s school as a site that must not reopen next week,” Mr Hurn wrote.

“We understand the disruption this will cause, however we have not been left with any choice than to temporarily close as we put emergency measures in place.”

North Yorkshire Council said Scalby School in Scarborough had been asked to close, but was the only one of its schools affected.

The council’s director of children and young people’s services, Stuart Carlton, said: “The school is required to make suitable arrangements to continue the education of their 1,000 pupils until safety work can be carried out.”

Raac was found in the roof of part of the junior school at Corpus Christi Catholic School in Brixton, south London, so it has temporarily relocated from the Trent Road site to St Martin-in-the-Field Girls School in two self-contained blocks.

Cockermouth School in Cockermouth sent a letter to parents on Thursday saying the school term will start on August 6, one day later than planned, to ensure the school can “prepare well” after Raac was found in four areas.

Surrey County Council confirmed Raac has been found in one school, which it has not named, and said the school does not require full closure.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said a condition survey of all state-funded schools and colleges was commissioned earlier in the year which will identify any structures suspected of containing Raac.

Local authorities and further education institutions have not reported any instances of Raac being present within schools or colleges to the Government, the spokesperson added.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) David Jones / PA.