Modular Buildings: The Answer To The UK’s Classroom Crisis?

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A new BBC investigation has revealed the shocking state of Britain’s school buildings. It is already widely known that hundreds of school buildings have been rendered uninhabitable because of the presence of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Raac). However this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

An episode of the BBC current affairs programme Panorama reveals multiple instances of children continuing to be taught in buildings that are not fit for purpose. This has potentially serious consequences for both children and their teachers, and of course all the other staff and visitors to the school.

Among the examples of low-quality and potentially harmful educational settings include a Scottish secondary school where draughty windows are held together with sticky labels; a secondary school in North Yorkshire where two-thirds of the buildings are unusable because of Raac; and an Essex secondary school with both Raac and asbestos.

Another school in Devon relied on outdated modular buildings from the 1960s that had no heating, and were as basic as sheds. However, contemporary portable modular buildings are now widely used to provide nursery and classroom space, and are very different to the earlier versions from half a century ago.

Modern prefab buildings are made from high quality materials that are durable and insulating, so they are easy to heat up and keep warm in the winter, and stay cool in the summer. They can also be provided with features such as ready-installed heating, lights, extra power sockets, partition walls, hot water heaters, and hygiene and kitchen facilities.

The portable buildings are mostly assembled off-site, and can be installed on a suitable level surface within a few days, with minimal disruption to the day to day operation of the school. It is possible to stack the buildings up to three storeys high, or connect adjacent buildings to form a more unified educational space.

Compared to the cost, disruption and timescale involved in traditional on-site construction methods, modular buildings can be an effective solution for schools, nurseries, and other educational institutions who are affected by the poor condition of the current school estate.

Years of underinvestment in maintaining existing school buildings and replacing outdated stock has contributed to the current crisis, according to the BBC investigation. It revealed that the average primary school in England is in need of £300,000 worth of repairs or upgrades, while the average secondary school needs around £1.5m.

Furthermore, it’s estimated that around a third (24,000) school buildings in England are beyond their original life expectancy, creating potentially dangerous conditions for some 700,000 children.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told the BBC that £15bn of capital funding had been allocated since 2015 for school repairs and maintenance, but admitted that only £3bn a year is allocated for such purposes. This is far short of the £5.3bn that the DfE claims that it needs to maintain schools in England adequately.

The serious issues facing the UK’s schools estate were recognised by the then Labour government 20 years ago. They introduced the Building Schools for the Future programme, which aimed to rebuild or repair every secondary school in England within 15-20 years. However, this was cancelled by the coalition government in 2010.

Potentially, the Building Schools for the Future programme could have largely mitigated against the very serious problems that UK schools are facing today. Raac continues to be identified in educational buildings, as structural assessments that should have taken place several years ago are at last carried out.

Raac was widely used in public sector buildings between the 1950s and the 1990s, because it was affordable and lightweight. This made it versatile and easy to work with, and it was installed in roof and wall panels, and also used as flooring.

Raac has air bubbles in the centre which makes it relatively cheap to manufacture, and when it was first introduced in the 1920s it was regarded as a revolutionary building material. It can be durable if it is correctly installed and properly maintained, but frequently this has not been the case.

In particular, Raac is susceptible to water damage, which can cause it to weaken and crumble. The partial collapse of a school ceiling last summer finally triggered the government to take action, but experts believe that the issue should have been addressed at a much earlier stage.

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