Q&A: How likely is it my child’s school will close due to school building defects?

The Department of Education is conducting structural safety checks of more than 40 schools over the coming days

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured  during a visit to two schools in Tyrrelstown, Dublin,  which are currently closed due to concerns over  structural defects. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured during a visit to two schools in Tyrrelstown, Dublin, which are currently closed due to concerns over structural defects. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins.

 

How likely is it that my child’s school will close?

No one knows for sure. If your child is attending one of the 40-plus schools which face structural assessments, you should keep in close touch with your school over the mid-term break.

The Department of Education will be conducting structural safety checks over the coming days and will pass on any detail to school principals.

The highest risk schools appear to be those built between 2007 and 2013 under the department’s “rapid build” scheme. Three-storey buildings, in particular, seem to be at high risk.

When will I know the outcome of my school’s safety check?

The department says these checks should be completed ahead of the end of the mid-term break on November 12th.

It is updating all principals and patrons on developments. It has asked parents to contact principals, rather than the department, for updates given that scale of the numbers potentially affected.

If a school needs to be closed, the department will alert the media. Otherwise, principals and patrons will be alerted.

Will all schools with structural problems have to close?

Not necessarily. In some cases, engineering solutions may be available - such as bracing walls - to ensure they are structurally sound on a temporary basis. This would allow schools to continue with minimal disruption.

In larger schools, structural concerns may only relate to some rather than all buildings on campus.

So, what happens if my child’s school is ordered to shut?

The Minister for Education says his department will work with schools, education partners and local communities to help source alternative temporary accommodation - where required - in time for the resumption of school after mid-term.

In the case of two primary schools which closed this week in Tyrrelstown, Dublin, for example, options such as spare capacity in a local secondary school and further education college are being explored for the 1,200 pupils affected.

If many schools do end up closing, it will be a mammoth task to find places within a matter of days.

To make matters even more challenging, prefabs are not an option in many cases - at least in the short term - as planning permission is required.

What structural problems have been uncovered to date?

The concerns relate to schools which were built using a particular construction method: steel frame and timber infill.

In one school, an engineer working on behalf of the department found that ties that should fix the exterior and interior walls were either absent or inadequate in places. Wooden panels which form part of the walls were not bolted to steel girders.

In this case, engineers concluded that if the defects led to a structural failure during storm force winds, there was a more than 80 per cent chance of bricks or material falling outwards, and a 20 per cent chance of an inner leaf wall falling inwards.

How did these problems occur in the first place?

It’s a good question - and one which may well end up being fought over in the courts.

What we do know is that the concerns relate to schools built by a single firm: Western Building Systems.

The schools were delivered under “rapid build” contracts, introduced in September 2007. They aimed to speed up the delivery of schools from between three to five years to well under 12 months. In fact, the building phase - in some cases - took just three months.

The system created risks in managing quality and building regulations at the time were loose.

Concerns were first raised over fire safety in these schools in 2015, which led to a series of fire audits being commissioned. These, in turn, have triggered these latest structural concerns.

Who was responsible for signing off the schools?

WBS says the department itself deemed each project to be fully compliant, issuing the supporting certificates of completion.

However, the department has insisted that the contractor and its design team were “fully responsible for the construction and certification of the buildings” in accordance with the regulations in force at the time.

It said the role of department representatives during periodic site visits was as “client liaison”.

This, it says, should not be construed as removing the responsibility from the contractor and its design teams for detailed quality control and certification of the buildings.

Who will pick up the tab for all this?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the building firm will be pursued for the cost of any remedial works.

It’s uncertain whether this will be possible, given that some contracts have a defects liability period of six years.

WBS for its part has pledged to resolve any issues which arise, and insists that until now its integrity has “never been questioned” in 35 years of operating.