Classrooms evacuated after ‘unsafe’ concrete which is prone to collapse found in Belfast school

Eight classrooms were closed on Wednesday after reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete identified in roof

“Unsafe” concrete which is prone to collapse has been found in a school in Belfast.

Eight classrooms in Cairnshill Primary School in south Belfast were evacuated and closed on Wednesday after reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) was identified in the roof of a two-storey block.

The North’s Department of Education said engineers had “confirmed the block is unsafe for continued use” but the rest of the school was safe.

Concerns over the safety of the material, which is cheaper than conventional concrete but is weaker and has a shorter lifespan, has led to the closure of buildings in more than 100 schools in England.

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It is the first time the concrete has been found in a school in Northern Ireland. An initial survey of a number of schools in Northern Ireland found Raac was not present in any of the buildings examined.

In a letter to parents on Wednesday, which has been seen by The Irish Times, the school principal, Joanne Currie, said she had been assured the remainder of the school building was “completely safe and that no other areas of the school have been impacted”.

Children in the eight affected classrooms, who are in Primaries Four to Six, have been sent home for the rest of the week, the school said.

The MP for South Belfast, the SDLP’s Claire Hanna, said the discovery of Raac would “obviously cause concern among the school community” but “every precaution is now being taken to prioritise the safety of children, teachers, staff and parents”.

SDLP Assembly member for South Belfast, Matthew O’Toole, said the party was “working with the school and the statutory agencies to address the presence of Raac quickly to ensure the safety of the affected classrooms and to put a plan in place to get kids back to school as quickly as possible”.

The permanent secretary at the Department of Education, Dr Mark Browne, visited the school on Wednesday and met the principal, Board of Governors and staff, as well as representatives from the Education Authority and engineers.

In a statement, he said the safety of teachers, staff and pupils was “our highest priority”, adding “we fully understand that this news will be concerning for staff, parents/carers and the wider school community”.

“The Department and the Education Authority are working closely with the school to ensure those classes affected can return as early as possible next week.

“The Department will provide funding for all remedial works required and we are committed to ensuring that there will be as little as disruption as possible for the school and parents,” he said.

A lightweight, “bubbly” form of concrete commonly used in construction between the 1950s and mid-1990s, Raac is predominantly found as precast panels in roofs, particularly flat roofs, and occasionally in floors and walls.

In September 2023, the Department commissioned the Education Authority to carry out structural surveys to ascertain whether Raac is present within schools in Northern Ireland.

All schools were reviewed on the basis of building fabric, age and type of construction and then organised surveys to be carried out, as required, by appointed engineers, the Department said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times