RAAC: November Update
The Department for Education (DfE) has recently updated their list of schools and colleges confirmed to contain Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). As of October 16th, 214 schools are currently affected by RAAC.
RAAC is a type of concrete which is lightweight and easier to produce than standard concrete but is less stable and prone to damage when exposed to moisture. According to the BBC, “it is less durable and has a lifespan of around 30 years.”
Of the 214 schools and colleges found to have RAAC, the DfE has stated that 202 schools are providing face-to-face learning, 12 schools currently have hybrid settings, and no schools are using remote learning entirely.
Although the majority of the schools are safe to resume normal face-to-face learning, of the schools more greatly affected, it’s important to consider the impact these disruptions may have on pupils and their learning. Such disruptions can affect attainment and quality of learning, which is particularly troubling as these same pupils will also have been affected by disruptions caused by COVID-19.
In order to understand the impact of remote or hybrid learning, especially during a public health or safety crisis, it’s helpful to examine the COVID-19 lockdowns. In a review by Cortés-Albornoz et al (2022) on the effects of remote learning during COVID-19, it was found that “academic performance was negatively affected […] with lower scores in standardized tests in the main domains compared to previous years”. They also found that “educators, parents, and students reported disorganization, increased academic demands, and motivational and behavioral changes.” The results of the review suggest that consistent face-to-face learning is key for academic attainment and for maintaining healthy behaviour and motivation. Given that remote learning can be such a negative experience for students, schools should be careful of the similar ways disruptions caused by RAAC and potential future health concerns may affect students’ quality of learning and attainment, especially as these are the same pupils impacted by the pandemic not long ago.
Another concern may be the effect on teacher-student interaction. Remote or hybrid learning may not always offer the same depth of interaction as consistent face-to-face learning, which can impact students’ understanding and progress. According to research from the Department for Education (DfE), during COVID-19, students reported "finding online learning difficult” and that it “did not allow for the ‘hands-on’ practice some students required for their field of study.” Research by Vagos and Carvalhais (2022) also found that remote learning was “an impersonal experience” for students. This may be a particular worry for students studying for GCSEs and A-levels who may experience anxiety regarding a lack of support and resources, and who deserve in-depth, consistent support from teachers face-to-face while preparing for exams.
In addition to this, another worry may be access to technology as not all students have the necessary technology and internet connection for smooth, efficient online learning. This is likely to affect poor, disadvantaged students the most. According to research by the DfE, students, who were recruited from deprived areas, reported “having issues with receiving laptops from their school, causing them to miss lessons altogether” during the COVID-19 lockdowns. They also found that, for those that did have laptops, there were issues such as “cameras not working” and the “internet dropping out" which “limited their engagement in remote learning.” There is a worry that students affected by RAAC may face similar issues with accessing online learning, especially for those from deprived areas and underfunded schools. Without access to efficient, working technology that is accessible to use, students’ attainment and progress can be majorly affected.
One particular concern may be the social and emotional impact on students as face-to-face contact with other students and teachers is important for their social and emotional wellbeing, as are extracurricular activities which may be impacted too. Research from Ravens-Sieberer et al (2021) has found that, regarding remote learning during COVID-19, children and adolescents “experienced significantly lower [health-related quality of life], more mental health problems, and higher anxiety levels than before the pandemic”. Importantly, this may affect pupils with existing social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) in particular who often require specialised services and support, which may not be as readily available when learning remotely or in a hybrid role. Schools should be aware of how RAAC safety concerns may worsen anxiety and stress in students who shouldn’t have to fear the safety of their school buildings while learning, and who may experience anxiety due to a change in their learning environment and routine.
Schools and the government should try to mitigate these problems as much as possible while RAAC safety measures are being carried out. Schools could do this by implementing strategies that have been suggested to make online or hybrid learning easier, particularly during a public health or safety crisis, such as the following:
• Assess specific needs: research by Garcia-Vedrenne et al (2020) has found that open communication with students and identifying their specific needs, such as access to technology, can make switching to remote learning an easier process. In particular, schools should assess the needs of SEMH and disadvantaged pupils, and work to offer them specialised support and ensure they have access to efficient technology or offer local spaces for them to learn.
• Be flexible with course plans and delivery of teaching: the same research by Garcia-Vedrenne et al shows that it’s important to have a course structure that incorporates flexibility into it to meet the needs of students, such as offering “both asynchronous and synchronous options for accessing course content” and offering different ways for students to complete assignments and activities.
• Encourage student engagement: Garcia-Vedrenne et al also recommend collaborative work to encourage engagement. For example, activities such as “jigsaw activities, group discussions and presentations, software tutorials, and an Oxford-style debate” can be used while online learning to encourage students to connect with one another.
• Work to maintain a strong connection with pupils : research by Tackie (2022) has found that “increased individualisation” and paying close attention to the emotional well-being of students is important in maintaining or even improving relationships with students. They found that having both individual and small group meetings meant teachers were able to have “vulnerable conversations and learn more about students’ lives and feelings while opening multiple lines of communication (email, chat, phone, and video calls)”. This allowed many students the “opportunity to confidently communicate and perhaps also increase engagement”.
Overall, the government should work to carry out RAAC safety measures as soon as possible so that students can return safely to face-to-face learning, and in the meantime, schools and the government should work together to provide in-depth support and efficient resources for pupils as much as possible.