More than 100 British schools ordered to remain shut due to unsafe concrete

British Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said that the government was taking a "cautious approach" in closing schools with walls, roofs or floors constructed from a type of pre-cast lightweight concrete that may crumble and collapse without warning. File Photo Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE

Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Britain has ordered more than 100 schools and colleges not to open when the new academic year begins Monday because they are constructed from a type of "life-expired" pre-cast lightweight concrete that could cause them to collapse without warning.

The Education Department issued the order late Thursday covering 104 schools across England telling them to vacate buildings or spaces where the concrete is present.

Issues with crumbling Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete, widely used in public buildings including schools, hospitals and courthouses from the 1960s through the 1980s, have been known for at least five years and spaces with RAAC in "critical" condition were taken out of use for repairs.

The decision to shut schools at the 11th hour was taken after it emerged that RAAC previously thought to be stable, was declared unsafe by the Health and Safety Executive and "liable to collapse with little or no notice."

"Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term," said Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

"We must take a cautious approach because that is the right thing to do for both pupils and staff. The plan we have set out will minimize the impact on pupil learning and provide schools with the right funding and support they need to put mitigations in place to deal with RAAC."

The government pledged to cover the full cost of repairing or replacing affected buildings and reimburse schools for spending on temporary accommodation, on or off-site, and other additional expenses incurred.

That support will enable schools to gradually get students back into class over the coming weeks and many to partially open next week but some students will be forced to study online from home.

Teaching and education unions reacted angrily to the news coming so soon after the disruption to young people's education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which saw schools closed for many months at a time.

The NASUWT said it was the result of "willful underinvestment" in school upkeep.

"Although we welcome that the DfE has finally taken action to safeguard pupils and teachers, it would appear that mere luck rather than judgment has prevented a major disaster from occurring," said General Secretary Patrick Roach.

The school leaders union, the NAHT, said that while the decision to shut schools was the correct one, they would not be in their current predicament without education spending cuts.

"NAHT has repeatedly raised concerns about these buildings for a long time now, so while this news is shocking, sadly it is not hugely surprising. What we are seeing here are the very real consequences of a decade of swingeing cuts to spending on school buildings," said General Secretary Paul Whiteman.

"The government is right to put the safety of pupils and staff first -- if the safety of buildings cannot be guaranteed, there is no choice but to close them so urgent building work can take place.

"But there is no escaping the fact that the timing of this couldn't be worse, with children due to return from the summer holidays next week."