A college for students with special educational needs is pleading with the government for exceptional financial support after dangerous RAAC concrete forced it to evacuate its learning space.
Royal College Manchester, an independent specialist college based in Cheshire that teaches students with severe and profound learning difficulties, had to close its biggest building after it found reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) this month.
However, its independent status means it is not entitled to government funding for RAAC-related work, as schools and general FE colleges are.
Clare Howard, chief executive of Natspec, which represents specialist colleges across England, accused the DfE of “treating students who are more vulnerable in a way that leaves them unprotected, when they wouldn’t do that with mainstream students”.
‘A considerable challenge’
Royal College Manchester, part of the Seashell Trust charity, had to “hurriedly” move most of its students to a building that wasn’t designed to cater for learners with special educational needs and/or disabilities at the beginning of September at the order of education secretary Gillian Keegan.
It has since had to fork out on costs to renovate the new site to make it accessible for students, many of whom use mobility aids and wheelchairs.
Bernie White, director of education and care at the Seashell Trust, told FE Week the young people the college teaches have “very complex needs” and elements of the building they have moved into, such as narrow corridors and larger classrooms for small teaching groups, present a huge challenge.
“There are practical, day-to-day issues that we’ve had to navigate and consider as we move,” she said.
“Transitions can be a challenging time for all our learners. This catapulted them into something which was very sudden.”
Disadvantaging vulnerable students
Term was delayed for five of the college’s 68 students. Remote learning is also not an option due to students’ needs.
They will use that building for two years, until another building, already planned before the college found RAAC, is ready in 2025/26.
White said she is in discussions with the DfE over funding and is hoping the department will offer cash to reimburse his college for the costs it has and will continue to incur due to RAAC.
However, the DfE told FE Week specialist colleges are not entitled to funding because they are independent. Unlike schools and general FE colleges, specialist colleges are typically not-for-profit companies or registered charities.
Howard said she was “pushing to get the [RAAC support] rules changed”.
“That’s something the DfE need to look at, particularly with their commitment to every young person having quality education. They need to look at why they have a policy whereby students in mainstream education are protected, and students with more complex needs aren’t protected. That’s an equality issue,” she added.
Royal College Manchester’s rush to respond to RAAC mirrors complaints made by general FE colleges.
The DfE added three colleges to its official list of educational settings which have identified RAAC this week. The list is now up to 174, four of which are general FE colleges. Royal College Manchester is the only specialist post-16 college on the list.
Farnborough College of Technology, Grantham College and Marple Sixth Form College – part of The Trafford College Group – joined Petroc as the general FE colleges with identified RAAC as of September 14.
Farnborough College criticised the DfE’s indecision for causing a “significant hindrance” after identifying RAAC months before DfE began ordering closures.
Despite DfE guidance showing concrete planks with RAAC were “generally in good condition” in July, the government told the college to urgently close 177,000 square feet of its space in August. That meant a “small number” of its adult learners could not come in the first week of term.
Grantham College, meanwhile, also had to close part of its campus while Trafford College closed part of its Marple Sixth Form College campus including six classrooms.