25 September 2007 fire at Sidney Stringer School, Coventry

Make building safety top priority in new schools programme, FBU warns prime minister

  • FBU demands fitting of fire sprinkler systems in new and existing schools;
  • Hundreds of fires still occurring each year in schools in England;

Firefighters have called on Boris Johnson to tackle the ‘very real’ fire risk in schools and ensure that both new and existing schools in England are fitted with vital fire safety features, such as fire sprinkler systems.

The demand comes after the government announced a new £1.7bn fund for the construction of 50 new schools and the repair of some existing schools and colleges.

Currently, a gap in fire safety guidance in England (Building Bulletin 100) allows those who build schools to do so without carrying out a full risk assessment.

According to figures published by the Department for Education, this has resulted in just 105 sprinkler systems being fitted in the 673 new schools built in England last year. By contrast, sprinklers are mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and Wales.

In 2016, the government had attempted to further water down the fire safety guidance but backed down after the Grenfell tragedy. The Department for Education has been stalling on carrying out a consultation to update the guidance.

Now, the FBU is urging the government to immediately make clear to those tasked with building the new schools that risk assessments must be carried out as standard and that building contracts will not be awarded unless companies confirm they will do so.

The government is also being urged to prioritise the retrofitting of sprinklers to already-existing schools and to provide whatever funds are necessary to ensure the work can be completed. The FBU says this work should be completed within five years.

Harrington Junior School in Derbyshire was destroyed in a fire in May 2020. It later emerged that the school did not have sprinklers fitted, making it the latest in a long line of schools completely destroyed by fire.

The most recent government figures show that there were almost 600 fires in schools in the year 2018/19 with over 7000 over the last decade. Zurich Insurance reports that large school fires can cost between £3m and £20m per event.

Key advocates for high standards of regulation such as the Fire Sector Federation have been campaigning for many years to make schools safer. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fire Safety and Rescue wrote to the education secretary yet again in June this year to raise urgent concerns about the lack of progress on automatic-sprinkler fitting in schools.

Firefighters are also raising concerns about the level of funding announced to repair schools and address long-standing safety issues such as the presence of asbestos in schools built prior to 2000. Asbestos is deadly and is a real threat to the health of students, staff and all who use school buildings. In 2017 the National Audit Office reported that the cost of all repairs to the existing school estate required almost £7bn of capital investment.

In England, there are over 24,000 schools and 174 further education colleges.

Andy Dark, FBU assistant general secretary, said:

“As we have seen with the Grenfell Tower fire and other instances of safety failings, loose regulation has left companies and councils able to take shortcuts that ultimately put lives at risk. We cannot allow that to continue happening in our schools.

“It is essential that the prime minister makes clear that safety is the highest priority in the building and refurbishment of schools and FE colleges and that the fitting of sprinkler systems becomes the norm.

“This is the biggest school-building programme for many years and it is essential that the schools are built to last.

“The government needs to re-open the dialogue with key stakeholders now to introduce tougher regulation. The time has come to stop dodging the issue and produce clear unequivocal regulations that make certain that safety in schools and colleges is assured.”

 

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