Families Cut Adrift by Concrete Crisis in U.K. Schools

Helen Burness was working from home on Monday when the email arrived. In less than 24 hours, her 9-year-old daughter was set to return to school after the long summer break.

The email was from the principal. The school had been forced to shut, the official wrote apologetically, because of concerns about unsafe concrete in its buildings.

Ms. Burness’s daughter, Marigold, has a rare chromosomal disorder and attends a specialist speech and language school for children with complex learning needs. She had been both nervous and excited about starting the new school year, and her parents had spent weeks helping her prepare.

Ms. Burness’s heart sank as she realized she would have to tell Marigold that the plan had changed — with no idea when the issue might be resolved.

“It’s been kind of in free fall really,” said Ms. Burness, 44, of how the week has played out. “And how much longer will it be?”

By Thursday morning, Ms. Burness and her husband, who both run their own businesses, were juggling parenting duties and their jobs, unable to find specialist child care at short notice. On Friday, the school said classes would resume the following week, but added that some rooms would be inaccessible and adjustments would have to be made.

Britain’s Conservative government has faced acute criticism since the announcement last week that more than 100 schools would have to close buildings because of the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC, a bubbly, lightweight material known to pose a risk of sudden collapse.

The crisis intensified after it became clear that senior government officials had ignored repeated warnings about the material, with a former Department for Education official accusing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of refusing to rebuild more schools while he was chancellor of the Exchequer, despite being told of a “critical risk to life.” (Mr. Sunak said it was “completely and utterly wrong” to hold him responsible for the funding shortfall.)

Haringey School for Girls in north London, which was closed because of the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

About 10,000 students had their start of year delayed, according to government data, and in an unwelcome reminder of pandemic lockdowns, thousands of children were moved either to fully remote learning or to a mix of in-person and remote learning.

For parents of students asked to stay home, the days since the announcement have been a scramble to find last-minute babysitters and reorganize lives. For special needs students, the distress caused by the school shutdown can be even more acute.

“Our lifeline is her school,” said Ms. Burness, as she set up her laptop for her day’s work while Marigold wandered the kitchen and watched “The Little Mermaid” on television. As well as speech and language therapy, her school provides physical activities and more traditional learning. While staff members have done their best to support parents, Ms. Burness said, she felt let down by the government’s inaction.

“Take some accountability for this epic fail. Be accountable,” she said. “This didn’t need to get to this crisis point.”

RAAC (pronounced rack) was used in the construction of hundreds of buildings in Britain between the 1950s and mid-1990s, including schools, hospitals and theaters. Its lightness made it a popular choice for the flat roofs common in the postwar building boom.

But concerns about the material, which has a life span of about 30 years, date back decades. In 1995, Victor Whitworth, a structural engineer in Somerset, in southwest England, wrote to the journal of the Institution of Structural Engineers: “Fellow engineers, beware!” after inspecting cracks in a school roof that contained RAAC.

In 2018, a school roof collapsed in Kent, in southeastern England. The ceiling crumbled over a weekend and nobody was hurt, but the dangers were clear. A 2019 safety alert recommended that all RAAC planks installed before 1980 should be replaced. In 2021, a government agency issued a safety briefing stating that “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse.”

The trouble was in securing the money to make repairs. And the eventual impact could be seen at two neighboring schools in Southend-on-Sea, about 40 miles east of London, on Wednesday afternoon.

Small children in crisp white shirts lined up outside Eastwood Primary School, chatting and giggling with classmates as they waited to be picked up by parents.

At Kingsdown School next door, the grounds were preternaturally quiet. The only signs of life were two workers climbing a ladder onto the flat roof of a building.

Another specialist school for children with complex learning needs, Kingsdown was also set to begin classes this week, but shut days before the start of the school year because of RAAC. Lydia Hyde, a local councilor in Southend from the opposition Labour Party, said that there was deep frustration from local authorities, parents and teachers that action wasn’t taken earlier.

“For some of these children, it’s their first school term,” Ms. Hyde said. “All of the children were excited, planning and preparing for school, and then it just didn’t happen.”

A specialist school for children with complex learning needs, Kingsdown was set to begin classes this week, but shut days before the start of the school year because of RAAC.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The staff members and local authorities scrambled to come up with a plan, including how to retrieve specialist equipment relied on by the children that was, for a time, stuck in the shuttered buildings.

From next week, Kingsdown will hold some classes in the school next door. Others will continue in sections of the building deemed safe. Louise Robinson, the principal, said in a statement that “the past week has been frantic, trying to plan, check on parents and families to offer support” but called the new measures a “fantastic, positive first step to us being able to reopen sooner rather than later.”

The Department of Education said it would work with local authorities on “individual solutions” for schools impacted and that it “will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Sunak defended the government’s approach, saying it acted “decisively.” But for years, Conservative-led governments slashed spending on infrastructure, critics say.

Caroline Slocock, the director of Civil Exchange, a think tank, and a former senior civil servant under both Labour and Conservative governments, pointed to policy shifts as far back as 2010 that contributed to the current crisis.

In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, she advised Gordon Brown, then Labour chancellor of the Exchequer and later prime minister, on how to strengthen rules to encourage long-term investment. She helped design “a one-way valve” to stop capital budgets from being slashed to meet short-term spending pressures.

Billy Sheppard, left, and his friend Luca Borquez, attend online lessons from Billy’s bedroom. The school they both attend has been closed because of the presence of RAAC.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

But in 2010, after the Conservatives came to power in a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats, the valve was removed, and a protracted period of government austerity began.

George Osborne, who served as chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2016, constrained spending drastically, an approach that Ms. Slocock said would ultimately cost the country more in the long run as critical infrastructure problems escalated.

“In a way, it’s a symbol of what you call broken Britain — or in this case, crumbling Britain,” she said. “There has been over a decade of not recognizing the problem. And in not dealing with it, it keeps getting worse and worse.”

In a September 2013 tweet that has come back to haunt him, David Cameron, the prime minister who oversaw spending cuts alongside Mr. Osborne, wrote: “We’re on the right track & we’ll fix the roof when the sun is shining.”

The message was shared widely this week, alongside scathing comments about school roofs from opposition politicians.

Buckhurst Hill Community Primary School is one of the more than 100 schools closed because of the presence of RAAC.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

On Thursday afternoon, Sally Walsh, 44, who lives in a suburb northeast of London, was looking after her 2-year-old at home along with her three school-aged children, who were unable to return to their classrooms.

Ms. Walsh said she couldn’t understand why the government waited until the last minute to assess the safety of schools with RAAC. “Even two weeks more notice for schools and parents would have been more helpful,” she said.

For now, her eldest son is doing classes online, her middle son will attend a different school a mile away next week, while her youngest will be taught in his school’s gym.

“I’ve just been so anxious the whole week,” she said. “But when it comes to your children, you just want them to feel settled, and secure and safe.”

Sally Sheppard with her children at home in a London suburb. She has children at two local schools, both closed because of the presence of RAAC.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

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