By The Rt Hon Mark Francois Member of Parliament for Rayleigh and Wickford – Working with local schools & headteachers to address the RAAC issue.
OVER the last few months, the issues caused by the discovery of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in a number of schools nationwide has caused understandable worry for many local residents.
Firstly, it is important to note that concerns surrounding the issue of RAAC dates initially back to the 1990’s. However, when a beam fell into a classroom in a deemed ‘low risk’ school over the summer holidays, the Government took the difficult decision to rapidly update its guidance.
Consequently, several hundred schools had to unexpectedly close, wholly, or partially, on the grounds of safety.
Importantly, as the Prime Minister confirmed late last month, only around 1% of schools in England are currently affected by RAAC, however, in Essex, the county has been “disproportionately affected”, with around a third of all schools in question, (this is largely due to considerable growth in Essex during decades in question.)
Having already experienced this issue at King Edmund school, in Ashingdon, late last year, I very much understand how worrying this is for staff, parents and pupils alike. In the case of King Edmund, the school had been in the process of having a major block demolished because it contained RAAC. However, during the demolition process, quantities of asbestos were also discovered.
This led to the Headteacher, Mr Jonathan Osborn, reluctantly having to close the school, owing to strong advice from DfE officials. Yet, consistent delays meant that the school was shut for a total of two months.
The handling of the closure of King Edmund by the Department for Education was so poor, that in July this year, during a Public Account Committee’s (PAC) inquiry into the condition of school buildings, I received a public apology from the Department for Education’s top civil servant, Permanent Secretary, Susan Acland-Hood. More positively, King Edmund recently held a ‘ground breaking’ ceremony, to celebrate the start of the rebuild of the main block, which is now due to open in early 2025.
In short, having now dealt with the issue of asbestos and RAAC at King Edmund school, I understand that it is important to separate fact from rumour. Thus, after the confirmation that 54 schools in Essex had been confirmed with having RAAC, 4 of which are in my constituency, it has been important to work as closely as possible with the Headteachers concerned.
In the case of Hockley Primary School, RAAC was first identified in late June. While engineering studies were being carried out to evaluate the full extent of the problem, pupils have had to be temporarily educated in classrooms in other local schools, including Greensward Academy, Plumberow Primary Academy and Westerings Primary Academy.
Following several meetings with the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb MP; Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System, the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan MP and officials at the DfE, as well as leaders from the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) which runs the school;
it has now been confirmed that they should hopefully receive new temporary classrooms within the next few weeks.
This will allow for the school pupils to be educated back on the school site itself, while engineers assess whether the school can be safely repaired or will have to be rebuilt. Similar work is also underway at Bromford’s in Wickford (see below.)
Turning to Wyburns Primary School in Rayleigh, the school, led by co-Headteachers Ms Kath Sansom and Miss Jen Miller, has temporarily relocated most of its pupils to the Civic Suite, at the top of Rayleigh High Street, while investigations continue, to see if the original school roof can be safely repaired.
During a recent the visit to their temporary home, I witnessed a number of lessons in progress and spoke to staff and pupils about their experience of moving to a new building.
Afterwards, I went to view the building and examine potential repairs to the roof, which might eventually allow the school to return to its original home. It was clear that the pupils are settling in well to their new surroundings, but they ultimately want their old school back, so I am working hard with Ministers and Essex County Council to try and make that prospect a reality, as soon as practically possible.
Finally, in the case of Bromfords School, in Wickford, 15 classrooms have been made inaccessible due to the discovery of RAAC. The headteacher, Mr Jochen Tree has been working around the clock to try and ensure that pupils have as much face-to-face teaching as possible. Alongside this, I have been actively lobbying Education Ministers to try and expedite the delivery of new temporary classrooms.
I was delighted to have recently visited the school alongside Baroness Barran. During this visit, the Minister and I saw where the new relocatable classrooms are now due to be installed within the next month or so. We were also shown the Collaborative Learning Centre (CLC) an Essex County Council (ECC ) owned facility, which is also located on the school site, which, with help from ECC, has now been repurposed to accommodate the school’s Sixth Form.
In summary, I would like to put on record my thanks to all the Headteachers and their staff who have worked tirelessly to try and respond to these challenges and mitigate the impact on their students.
As a local constituency MP, I have sought to do everything I can to support the Headteachers and schools affected by this issue and I will certainly continue to work with them closely, over the weeks and months ahead, including on long term solutions, not least for the benefit of pupils and parents alike.
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