Surveyor shortages have delayed vital checks to buildings for crumbling RAAC concrete at England’s biggest college group.
At least two other colleges have had to partially close their sites as more than 100 schools battle a crisis around buildings at risk of collapse.
But FE Week understands no colleges have yet had to delay the start of term for any students due to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), with affected learners moved to other facilities.
Ministers ordered 147 education settings to shut this week because of concerns around RAAC, which was widely used as a lighter alternative to standard concrete from the 1950s to the 1980s. Studies have since found the material can become destabilised over time. The government has known about the problem for years but only recently acted on it after learning over the summer of cases where buildings with RAAC collapsed, despite not showing any signs of deterioration.
A list of 146 schools and one college – Petroc – that have been forced to fully or partially close was published by the Department for Education this week, but it only includes cases identified as of August 30. About 1,500 schools and about 20 colleges are yet to complete RAAC checks, meaning the number of settings at risk is likely to be even higher.
Newcastle College Group (NCG) – one of the largest college groups in England, with more
than 30,000 students spread across seven colleges – told FE Week it was due to begin its
RAAC surveys last month but has so far failed to carry them out due to a lack of specialists.
A spokesperson for the group said the on-site survey scheduled for August “is now planned to take place in September and October, due to the availability of the specialist consultants required to undertake it”.
However, the college confirmed there has been no disruption to learning and that all learners are on site.
‘A pinch point’
There are concerns that finding enough specialist staff to complete the surveys will prove difficult and that the surging demand could open the door to unqualified personnel carrying out the checks.
Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, warned that there is “likely to be a pinch point” around the number of available surveyors due to the large amount of work needed in a short space of time. However, he “believe[s] the industry will cope” despite capacity issues and that any pinch points could “be variable according to locality”.
However, he told FE Week it was imperative to avoid the “possible tendency of a knee-jerk reaction to asset managers appointing ‘surveyors’ who do not have the competence to carry out an appropriate survey since this will inevitably lead to more problems”.
At least two other colleges have had to partially close their sites this week after identifying RAAC.
Trafford College Group, which serves more than 12,000 students across four colleges, closed part of its Marple campus including six classrooms. A spokesperson for the college said it had “restrict[ed] access to the affected area while we complete further surveys and if necessary, remedial works”.
“The classrooms affected will not be in use until we are reassured that they are fit for purpose and have passed all necessary health and safety checks,” they added.
The area is isolated on one side of the campus and there have been “no delays” to anyone starting term on time, as there is extra capacity. But it is “too early” to say when the RAAC will be removed from the site.
Devon-based Petroc, which has about 11,000 students, had to close the first floor of a building in Barnstable after it found RAAC at the site in February. A statement on its website published this week said the area “remains sealed off”, with “specialist engineering support structures” installed as a precaution. The college has put aside £300,000 to remediate its RAAC.
The DfE has pledged to fund all the cash needed to remediate school and college buildings with RAAC. FE Week also understands extra funding for things like transport to alternative classrooms will be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
FE Week understands that another college, Barnet and Southgate College, found RAAC during a refurbishment job in 2020 but has since removed it.
Experts within the FE sector anticipate that RAAC will be a lesser problem in colleges than in schools. In a blog for the Association of Colleges, Ian Pryce, chief executive of the Bedford College Group, said colleges “naturally generate cash to maintain the quality and value of their estate” as their accounts need to show the depreciation of their buildings. With schools, this is not the case, meaning “buildings are treated as rentfree accommodation”.
AoC deputy chief executive, Julian Gravatt, said: “Colleges operate from more than 4,500
buildings and we are certain that there will be a few cases where these buildings contain
RAAC but, so far, there are no cases where this has required a significant building closure or a delay to the start of term.
“It can be quite hard to locate RAAC in a building because it is sometimes hidden by
cladding, but colleges have a good track record in managing their buildings and the vast majority (more than 90 per cent) returned questionnaires to DfE when asked to do so earlier this year. DfE has commissioned specialist surveyors to carry out on-site inspections in schools and colleges in cases to follow-up suspected cases. This work continues.”