The current controversy over schools closed due to buildings using RAAC (Reinforced Autoclave Aerated Concrete) is an interesting one.
Of the UK’s 22,000 schools, around 5% have so far been identified as using RAAC but the overwhelming majority of buildings with RAAC are in the other parts of the government sector, particularly hospitals, and the majority of structures are likely to be offices in the private sector as RAAC is known to be ‘present in many types of buildings’.
There were two RAAC school collapses in 2018 and no student or teacher was injured. For comparison, in 2022,13 school-aged children died of invasive Group A Streptococcal (iGAS) infection in England and another 54 under-16s died in traffic accidents (2022 provisional figures). Similarly, a 2019 DfE asbestos survey found that 80.9% of participants ‘had asbestos present on their estate’.
In 2018 the Local Government Association and DfE contacted all school building owners after the failure of an RAAC roof due to water damage. In 2019 the Institute of Structural Engineers’ Standing Committee on Structural Safety published a report about RAAC in schools for ‘Government Departments and Local Authorities who have schools and similar buildings in their asset portfolios’.
The DfE produced guidelines in 2021 .
In Sept 2022 the Office for Government Property (OGP) issued a safety briefing notice to all property leaders warning that RAAC is, ‘now life expired and liable to collapse’, based on a review done in 2021 and which, while ‘intended for educational buildings, …. is generally relevant to all buildings’.
So, while there is risk of injury, none has yet occurred and the response to this ‘crisis’ will have a modest potential impact on a small number of students. While this is regrettable, one of the lessons from Covid is that this can be reduced by online lessons and other interventions already used in schools. Compare this to the very real crisis in persistent student absence, which, according to data analysed by Education Data Labs, hit 25.6% in the last term of 2022!
Since the RAAC announcement, Labour and others have been shouting that this ‘crisis’ is the fault of politicians like Michael Gove and the Conservative austerity agenda, etc. Yes, the Conservatives ended Labour’s massive £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project in 2010. BSF, like many ideas from the Blair era, delivered via capable Education Secretary of State like David Blunkett, was spot on. Many schools needed repair and rebuilding, and the BSF organising idea was that it would bring efficiencies of scale and architectural excellence, construction and operation (collectively known as Design, Build and Operate/DBO) to the education estate. Sadly, BSF became a large financial trough into which many snouts were pushed as widely covered in the industry media, with Construction News reporting in 2008 that Skanska spent £5m on a failed £600m BSF bid. The cause was seen as BSF’s byzantine bureaucracy that sat atop a ‘lengthy and costly procurement model’.
But while BSF was a costly failure, the Conservatives have done arguably worse at building and maintaining schools despite the claims of Prime Minister Sunak, including decisions about school building budgets when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
What neither side of politics nor the media seem interested in (why would they be?) is the complexities of planning for school building at the current peak of the school population as a result of a baby boom in the early 2000s. Enrolments have peaked at about 7.86m but are expected to decline by 12% to 6.9m (960,000) by 2032, so in just nine years the DfE and government will need fewer schools. Add to these the legally-binding Net Zero targets of 2050, which will require many billions more than the existing education infrastructure budget, and we have a clear forecast for a ‘perfect storm’ in the planning and funding of the entire education estate.
Despite claims that education has not changed in 100 years, it has, and Covid accelerated the process. Edtech, the subject I am most familiar with, came into the mainstream, and despite many commercial products being made ‘free’ during the event, the biggest international success in education was Oak National Academy.
What links the substantial changes in the education and edtech landscape over the last few years, including the current collapse in funding for edtech companies driven by their inability to scale or make a profit, is the emergence of virtual schools. These began to emerge, initially as edtech experiments and more recently as arguably the most interesting area in the for-profit private school sector, one example being King’s Interhigh owned by Inspired Education.
While we may see virtual schools as a new idea, they have existed for over a hundred years, starting via the correspondence education movement, a major FE trend in the late 19th century. In 1916 Blackfriars School in NSW, Australia had 400 teaching staff educating 7000 students via correspondence and in 1951 Australia’s Schools of the Air was launched using shortwave radio technology. By 2009 shortwave radio and print materials had been replaced by internet technologies such as wireless radio, video streaming and online content, tools and assessments.
The more recent emergence of virtual schools in the UK began mostly to provide legally-required alternative education provision for students who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend mainstream schools; a niche market whose main clients were local education authorities and multi-academy trusts. Covid’s impact on education changed thinking about virtual schooling and as a result the smartest investors and for-profit private school operators began investing in them or buying them outright. Perhaps unexpectedly, the UK’s traditional charitable private schools have not been successful at cracking this new market as the failure of Harrow Online (listed as being Powered by Pearson) and EtonX show. Given the likely impact of business rates and VAT on charitable private schools, their lack of interest and success in this emerging sector indicates a myopic approach to business which seems to be focused on recruiting more foreign students to their UK campuses while also trying to generate revenue from franchised outlets, often in markets where their educational and cultural standards seem at odds with local politics and culture.
Rather than ceding this market to investors and for-profit providers, in the emerging confluence of school building chaos and persistent absence there exists an opportunity for the government to set up their own virtual school. This would help reduce pressure on the budget to build and maintain schools, fit in with the known decline in student population and be part of a solution to the absence crisis. Ideally the foundation for such a new structure would be Oak National Academy. While this will raise protests from organisations like BESA and the Publishers Association, it would be a smart move that, with a well-structured curriculum backed by content, assessment and student support (particularly mental health), could be the educational innovation the edtech and education sectors seem to be lacking. Equally, a major MAT like United Learning could (arguably should) do the same but from a management and financial perspective this is one of the few instances where I think a central, government-led approach might be best.
Challenging edu myths
One of the key edu myths propagated by UK private schools (and universities) is that British education is ‘world leading’. While I fully support private school choice, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates they are neither world leading nor value for money. Government schools have improved significantly over the last few years mostly because of initiatives from both the current Conservative and former Labor administration. Improvement in education driven by policy changes (e.g. phonics and increasingly direct instruction) takes decades to show up and can just as rapidly reverse – as has been seen in Finland, where major changes between 1960-2000 saw standards soar then fall significantly after the implementation of new education policies post-2000.
A ‘world leading’, well-resourced English/DfE virtual school may be an example that helps us reclaim some of our lost educational prestige? It may also be a way for governments of either stripe to better use their infrastructure and core education spending rather than focusing overly on RAAC (which will be forgotten when the media cycle moves on). Such a success may also free up funds for the next education infrastructure crisis (probably Net Zero).
In the nearer term, the political epitaph for Gilian Keegan, the current Education SoS, written on non-RAAC concrete, may read, “I did a fucking great job while everyone else was sitting on their arse” (a Conservative version of the Ed Stone?).