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What is RAAC and why are schools concerned about it?

More than 100 schools in England have been closed amid fears buildings made of a certain type of concrete are at risk of collapsing.

Just days before students across the country were due to return to school after the summer holidays, the government has announced that some students will not be returning to school in the new school year.

Here’s everything you need to know about RAAC, the concrete in question.

What is RAAC?

RAAC stands for Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete and tends to contain air bubbles in the material.

It is a lightweight material that was primarily used for flat roofs but has also been used for floors and walls.

What does RAAC look like?

RAAC was compared to that inside an aero candy bar.

However, you’re unlikely to be able to spot it if you walk around a building, as it’s usually coated in plaster or covered up, as you can see in this BBC Breakfast clip.

Why is it so dangerous?

RAAC is significantly more dangerous than regular concrete as it is less durable, less moisture tolerant and lasts only 30 years.

If water gets into the air bubbles, the pole holding them can rot and weaken – and even the coating material is susceptible to rotting – meaning it can fall off without warning.

Why was RAAC used at all?

It was particularly popular in the 1950s and 1990s because it is a cheaper variant of the usual building concrete that is quicker to produce and easier to lay.

And the risks associated with RAAC were only recently recognized after the roof of a primary school in Kent collapsed in 2018.

Then in 2021 the Government Property Office sent out a formal alert on the material, saying it was “now expired and in danger of collapsing”.

However, in the years that followed, the government came under increasing criticism for failing to respond to health and safety threats.

How Many Schools Could Be Affected by RAAC Right Now?

The Education Secretary claimed that out of 22,500 schools in England, 156 have been found to have the dangerous form of concrete – and 52 already have corrective measures in place.

However, Gillian Keegan has also confirmed that there are still many schools that need to submit their surveys on whether or not they suspect RAAC in their buildings, which is why the government is sending surveyors to these bodies to verify this.

The government has yet to release a full list of schools that have been closed due to safety concerns. Keegan claims this will be released later this week.

Can RAAC cause asbestos?

Asbestos is the umbrella term for naturally occurring minerals that can crystallize to form fibers that are strong, heat and chemical resistant, and will not dissolve in water or evaporate. However, if it is moved or exposed, it can release smaller fibers that can cause cancer, especially in the lungs.

The decades between the 1950’s and 1990’s were a boom period for asbestos, until it was eventually banned due to its hazardous inhalation properties.

But that means asbestos could be exposed and disrupted in buildings where RAAC is crumbling – potentially meaning the minerals can become toxic.

Asbestos is also present in at least 300,000 non-residential buildings in the UK.

The government determined this in 2019 that asbestos was present in four out of five schools in England.

Who is responsible for this crisis?

Keegan was quick to remind broadcasters Monday morning that local authorities are indeed responsible for school structures – but she had acted with extra caution in this case and wanted a centralized response to the RAAC scandal.

Rishi Sunak has also claimed that it is not the government’s fault and that it is not his fault, even though he cut the schools’ repair budget by half as chancellor.

His response came after former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education accused Sunak of not wanting to provide them with any further funding during his tenure at the Treasury.

The now Prime Minister told Sky News: “That was completely wrong.”

He said he announced a ten-year rebuilding program for 500 schools when he first got the top job in 2020.

But the Conservatives’ actions during the coalition government of 2010-2015, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron ended Labor’s ‘Build Schools for the Future’ programme, are also met with frowns.

The question remains why the crisis is only now being addressed as RAAC has been a problem for a long time.

The Government has claimed that new evidence of the unsafe material emerged in late August – so it has decided that any schools where RAAC has been found must be shut down pending damage control decisions.

When will the RAAC crisis be resolved?

Remedial measures may include deploying portable classrooms or strengthening buildings, but the exact timeline and total cost of addressing the problem remains unclear.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the government will pay for the remedies and “we will spend what is necessary”.

It is also not clear whether there will be new funds for longer-term construction measures.

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