The RAAC Crisis is a Sustainability Issue

Mystaya Brémaud
January 12, 2024

Image Credit: Camille

In September 2023, just days before the new term, education secretary Gillian Keegan took action to close school buildings that contained RAAC, after the collapse of a “low risk” beam led to a rapid re-assessment of the risk of RAAC. 

What is RAAC?

RAAC stands for Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete and is a type of concrete that is light enough to be used for ceiling tiles and flat roofs. It was used in many UK public buildings from the 1950s until production was ended in 1982 over concerns about its durability. Since the mid 1990s there have been concerns over the longevity of RAAC, when it became apparent that it only has a lifespan of around 30 years. However, it was only in 2019 that the government told schools to replace RAAC panels. 

What does this have to do with the climate crisis?

The government’s reaction to the RAAC crisis parallels their reaction to the climate crisis. This recent flare-up of the problems surrounding RAAC has shown a failure of government policy as there continues to be insufficient action to remove the RAAC present in schools. Many students are still learning in temporary buildings and spaces not designed to be classrooms. Even in the face of a “crisis” the immediate action required is not taken. Like climate change, the issues surrounding RAAC have been known for upwards of 40 decades, yet even now, when it has been declared a crisis, the solutions the government offers are not enough. 

However, if the government shows it is prepared to spend the £11.4 billion required to retrofit schools (an estimate for England alone), it gives a fantastic opportunity to build back better. (If you aren’t sure what retrofit means, you might find it helpful to look at this explanation). Teach the Future’s report has shown that the cost of a net-zero retrofit for schools across the UK is £16.3 billion. Now, the costs of retrofitting for RAAC and retrofitting for net zero aren’t additive: retrofits of any kind are co-beneficial. A retrofit that removes RAAC has the capacity to replace it with materials and systems that will help us reach net zero sooner. As a result, retrofitting for RAAC and net zero at the same time is the most cost effective solution to the dangers facing our education.

RAAC highlights a key issue with our current design approach for both buildings and solutions: they are not designed to last. In order to truly deal with the RAAC and climate crises, we not only need to stop dealing with just the immediate issues, but have a focus on retrofitting for long term investment, not a “sticking plaster approach”. Like many other government decisions, the assessment of risk and policy for RAAC and the climate crisis has been led by a “likely scenario” approach rather than a “worst case scenario” approach. Although making policies based on the most likely scenario might make sense from a probability perspective, it isn’t the approach taken by other government schemes such as counter-terrorism and public health, where they use a “worst case scenario” methodology. By shaping climate and RAAC policy around these predictions of the “most likely” scenario, it leaves us unprepared when the worst case scenario does happen (as is the case with the 1.5℃ limit looking like it will be exceeded sooner than previously predicted), and often results in a lack of government focus and funding for these areas, as they get pushed aside in favour of threats presented with a “worst case scenario” assessment. 

Not only does RAAC act as a warning to the risks of inaction when it comes to climate change, but the condition of RAAC is worsened by climate change. According to the Met Office, the UK experienced 7.3% more rainfall in the period 1991-2020, compared to the period 1961-1990. Many areas of the UK have experienced upwards of a 10% increase in rainfall, with the increased regularity of freak weather events increasing the likelihood of standing water (which damages RAAC further). 

And this is on top of all the ways that the climate emergency is already affecting our education. With climate change causing a rapid increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, many UK students are prevented from going to school due heatwaves and flooding. How are students going to be prepared for the future if they can’t even go to school to learn about it?

Ok, but what does this have to do with Teach the Future?

We are campaigning for substantial investment in the retrofit of existing educational buildings to bring them to the energy efficiency standards required to reach net zero by 2030. While the presence of RAAC in educational buildings isn’t a barrier to them being net zero, the need to remove RAAC provides an opportunity to incorporate a broader retrofit of education buildings to enable us to meet our net zero targets through better insulation, electrification and heat pumps. Such a retrofit would not only save the public and the government money in the long-run, but it would also allow education buildings to continue doing what they do best: teaching the next generation how to tackle the challenges that we will face.

However, at the moment our curriculums and school buildings are not fulfilling their duty. They are not doing enough to teach us how we will face the most important challenge of our lifetime: the climate emergency. As the protectors of the future, the youth are being left unprepared; the knowledge that is already known about how we can tackle climate change is not being taught to us, and we are being left to figure it out alone. We must change this. A retrofit of school buildings is the first step in building societal resilience to global heating. Through practical and tangible experience, students at net-zero schools would have the knowledge and skills necessary to help the rest of their community, and the world, become net zero. Both RAAC and the climate crisis put the lives and education of our children and young people at risk, and we must act now to safeguard our future.