Urgent update on school building safety
Following years of capital funding cuts by this government, we are facing an unfolding crisis in school buildings safety.
At the end of August 2023, the Department for Education (DfE) suddenly ordered over 100 schools, colleges and nurseries in England to close buildings just before the start of the new autumn term.
This is due to these buildings being constructed of a type of concrete that is prone to collapse, known as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) – and these schools have no mitigation plans in place. A much larger number of schools have either identified or suspect the presence of RAAC in their buildings but are awaiting DfE surveys.
In addition to RAAC, the National Audit Office (NAO) recently reported that following years of under-investment, an astonishing 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment.
UNISON has been lobbying the government for many months to take action on school building safety and to publish information about at-risk properties, so we are relieved that the issue is finally being taken seriously – but it is scandalous that the government has squandered valuable months hiding this crisis when they should have been fixing dangerous school buildings.
You can hear UNISON Head of Education Mike Short’s reaction on LBC radio below.
What is the current situation across the UK?
England: The DfE have updated the list of education settings with confirmed RAAC. This has increased to 214. The majority of schools remain fully open, closing only the affected buildings, but some have hybrid arrangements for remote learning in place. It is suspected that the list of schools with RAAC will grow further as some schools are still awaiting assessment.
Scotland: Structural inspections have been carried out across Scotland to identify where RAAC is present. Those schools where RAAC is found have various safety measures in place to mitigate risks: some buildings have been closed while others are still being investigated or monitored.
Wales: Local authorities in Wales have completed their initial RAAC identification process and identified four schools where RAAC is present. The Welsh Government are now working with local authorities to see where further building surveys are required, and aim to complete this work by December.
Northern Ireland: In Northern Ireland, the Department of Education has confirmed that urgent structural surveys are being carried out to check for RAAC in schools. There is currently no timeline for these checks to be completed.
I am affected by the school closures. Where do I stand?
Advice for those with caring responsibilities who are affected by a school closure can be found on the link below.
What can I do?
It is clear that the current crisis is a result of years of government underfunding in education. UNISON continues to campaign for an increase in funding for schools, and you can help by emailing your local MP to raise awareness and bring this topic to the forefront of the Government’s agenda.
Please take part in our short survey to help us support members who work in schools found to be unsafe, and to campaign for urgent action to address this crisis.
As the situation unfolds we hope to add further guidance and information for members and branches on how the issue affects members in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In the meantime, we have developed a set of questions for members to ask your school leadership to seek assurances about the safety of your workplace:
1. Do we have and Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in any of our school buildings and have we told the Department for Education (DfE)?
2. If there is RAAC in our school buildings, can you tell me where this is, how this is being safely managed and how I should report any concerns?
3. Did our school respond to the DfE asbestos survey and do we have any in our buildings?
4. If there is asbestos in our school buildings, can you tell me where this is, how this is being safely managed, what plans you have to remove it, and how I should report any concerns?
5. Are there any other building or safety issues that we need to know about?
If you have any concerns about responses to these questions, please contact your local UNISON Health and Safety representative or branch.
If you don’t have a local Health and Safety representative, you could be just the person to take on the role. Find out more below.
What are UNISON doing?
We have called for the publication of all schools with ‘suspected’ RAAC who are awaiting DfE surveys. You can read our recent letters to the government here and here.
We have also produced a health and safety checklist for branches to send to local schools. This has been sent to branches and is also available to download from UNISON’s Organising Space.
We also continue our campaign for an immediate increase in funding to deal with the unfolding crisis in building safety.
Time off for dependants
How much time can you take off to deal with emergencies involving your dependants?
The law states that the amount of time granted to an employee must be ‘reasonable’.
Your employer should have a written policy regarding leave or it may be specified in your employment contract.
If you think that your employer has unreasonably refused to permit you to take time off you have the right to make a complaint to an employment tribunal.
This must be done within three months less one day of the incident.
How often can you take time off for dependants?
There is no limit to the number of times you can take time off for dependants.
However, your employer may take into account previous periods of time off for dependants when considering whether or not your most recent request is reasonable and therefore whether or not to grant it.
Whether or not the amount of time that you took off or sought to take off was reasonable will also be relevant if you claim to have suffered from detrimental treatment/dismissal as a result of taking or requesting time off for dependants.
Is time taken off for dependants paid or unpaid?
There is no law requiring employers to pay an employee for the time they take off to deal with emergencies.
However, many employers do pay for a certain number of days off for dependants per year.
Ask your branch if there is a local or national agreement entitling you to paid time off for dependants.
Who is considered a dependant?
According to the law your dependants include your parents, spouse / civil partner and children, as well as relatives, friends or unrelated children who live in your home as family.
Other people who reasonably depend on your help in case of an emergency are also dependants.