“The problem with these panels is not so much the material itself. It’s the fact that they’ve been used well beyond their expiry date,” says Juan Sagaseta, a reader in structural robustness at the University of Surrey. “Unfortunately, spending on new buildings and opening new schools or hospitals is often viewed in our society as more glamorous than spending on maintaining the old ones.”
The issues around RAAC were first investigated in the 1990s by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), an organization initially established as a government agency that now operates as a social enterprise. At the time, the removal of roof panels from some buildings had raised concerns, although there had been no conclusive evidence of immediate safety risks. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Department of Education finally took action, after the ceiling of a primary school in Kent, in Southern England, suddenly collapsed. Fortunately, the incident happened on a Saturday and no one was injured. The school had been rebuilt in 1979 using RAAC after a fire. School authorities were sent questionnaires to try to establish whether or not they had RAAC in their buildings, but, Sagaseta says, they (understandably) often didn’t have the expertise or resources to identify the material. Finally, in the fall of 2022, the Department of Education sent out professional surveyors to classify RAAC constructions as “critical” or “noncritical.”
The sudden decision to close schools this summer was triggered by three cases of RAAC panels that were considered noncritical but later failed. The first incident involved a commercial building, the second a school in a different country, and the third an English school in late August. The 150 or so institutions now known to be at greatest risk represent a tiny fraction of the 22,000 state-owned schools, colleges, and nurseries in England.
But these instances are just the tip of the iceberg. Any building constructed cheaply and quickly in the extensive period after World War II is a cause for concern—including court buildings, prisons, supermarkets, and warehouses. As part of a routine investigation, RAAC was also discovered within the Houses of Parliament, which is already in dire need of major renovation.
Chris Goodier, a professor of construction engineering and materials who has been studying RAAC for several years, says that there are hundreds of thousands of RAAC panels spread across various public and private buildings across the UK, which require immediate assessment. “The great majority will be fine and safe. Those that are not safe should be replaced or strengthened.”
For pupils, students, and their parents, the timing of the school closures just before the new term was incredibly disruptive. Some now have to learn remotely, while others have lessons in temporary rooms. The government has said it “will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe,” but it’s not clear how much that would be. Some estimates have put the cost of fixing the problem in the hundreds of millions of dollars.