Schools concrete crisis is risk to pupils’ mental health, headteacher warns

Posted: 5th September 2023

A headteacher whose 830 pupils must learn semi-remotely for at least a term because of the schools concrete crisis has warned that the upheaval could cause a recurrence of the negative mental health impact of Covid lockdowns.

James Saunders, the leader of Honywood school in Coggeshall, Essex, fears that year-seven students entering their first term at secondary school could face future struggles after the Department for Education last week ordered the closure of 22 classrooms as part of a nationwide safety alert.

The 1960s school was built using the aerated concrete roof panels known as Raac, which have forced the partial or complete closure of more than 100 schools in England and Wales over fears of sudden collapse.

Pupils at the school will be given a rota that means they will attend school on some days and work at home the rest of the time.

“It’s the worst time to be moving to remote learning,” Saunders said. “Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of our year-sevens. That’s a crucial time. It’s a transition [from primary to secondary school] that can really affect their mental health going forward.”

He said there had been a clear knock-on effect on the mental health of some in the cohort who started secondary school during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. “That could happen again,” he warned. “It’s going to be a lot tougher.”

UK government data from February and March 2021 shows that rates of probable mental disorder in children and young people increased between 2017 and 2021 from 12% to 17% among six-16-year-olds and from 10% to 17% among 17-19-year-olds.

On Monday, Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, promised to publish a list of the affected schools before the end of the week.

Over the weekend, the numbers grew as engineers continued inspections of a material that the Health and Safety Executive said “is now life-expired” and “liable to collapse with little or no notice”.

Some schools face having to disturb asbestos to access the Raac, which requires specialist contractors and is likely to lead to further delays in reopening classrooms.

Pupils in all years at Honywood will have to rely on iPads at home for the coming month for at least part of the time. It could take several months for props to be installed in the affected English, maths, modern languages and computing classrooms to make them temporarily safe.

Pupils would then, in theory, be able to move back in, but in the longer term, the buildings will have to be vacated again for a permanent fix. Toilets, the staff room and photocopier room will also be out of action. Temporary buildings are being sought.

It is a story being repeated across England and Wales. An estates manager in another area told the Guardian that the cost of fixing a single block made with the now out-of-date lightweight panels could easily hit £1m.

That is likely to raise the question of whether good money is being thrown after bad when schools from the 1960s, 70s and 80s also have leaks, problems with wiring and, in some cases, asbestos – a fire-retardant material that if disturbed can release fibres that cause the incurable lung cancer mesothelioma.

Wholesale rebuilding could drive up the cost of the crisis well into hundreds of millions of pounds at a time when capital spending on schools in England has been falling in real terms. In 2021-22 capital spending by the Department for Education was about £4.9bn, the lowest recorded since 2009-10, according to the House of Commons library.

Treasury sources said at the weekend that spending would have to come out of the existing schools capital budget despite the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, vowing to “spend what it takes”.

Steve Chalke, whose Oasis foundation runs 52 academies in England, many of which serve disadvantaged communities, said children from poorer families would suffer most from the coming disruption. “There’s an impact on all children, but the greatest impact will be on the most disadvantaged.

“It’s a re-run of Covid. It’s another reason why you can’t be at school. If you are a two-income family, with a good house and the capacity to work from home, and money is no issue to you, you can devote time to your child’s education. If you are not that family and the pursuit of cash consumes a whole lot more of your time and you have to be out to do your job, you are faced with a crisis.”

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