DfE orders fire safety checks to identify schools ‘at risk’ after Grenfell blaze

DfE orders fire safety checks to identify schools 'at risk' after Grenfell blaze

The government has instructed councils and academy trusts to carry out fire safety checks on school buildings to identify any that may need further investigation in light of the Grenfell Tower blaze.

It comes after a Schools Week investigation on Monday found the proportion of new schools being built with fire-preventing sprinklers has halved to just 35 per cent since 2010.

There have since been reports that schools could be fitted with the same cladding blamed for the Grenfell fire.

Some school heads have started to carry out their own checks, specifically on cladding, to ensure they are safe to continue using.

Now the government is instructing all councils and academy trusts to conduct similar investigations.

“The government is taking the potential impact from the tragic Grenfell Tower fire very seriously,” a spokesperson said.

“Building owners across the public sector estate are being contacted to ensure any risks are managed and dealt with appropriately and promptly.”

He added that as part of this, the Department for Education (DfE) is contacting “all bodies responsible for safety in schools” and instructing them to carry out checks to identify any buildings “which may require further investigation”.

More than 70 people died after a huge fire erupted at Grenfell Tower – a 24-storey housing block in west London – on June 12.

Police revealed today that they could consider manslaughter charges in relation to the fire, after insulation and cladding tiles at the building failed safety tests.

The exact number of schools with cladding is unknown. But figures from Tussell, a database of UK government tenders and contracts, show that since February 2014, £553 million has been spent on hundreds of public sector contracts to fit buildings across the UK with some form of cladding.

Schools and universities accounted for 19 awards for £23 million and 37 tenders for £504 million, according to Tussell.

However this relates purely to contracts that involve any types of cladding – which might not be the same as used on Grenfell Tower.

Andrew Cliffe, head of Brine Leas School in Nantwich, has started conducting his own fire safety checks.

In a letter to parents, reported by the Nantwich News yesterday, he said: “After the terrible disaster in London recently, we have been making some inquiries about the cladding used on the school buildings.

“As you will be aware, it is not just the nature of the product but how it was fitted as well.”

Cliffe said a good way for schools to start checking safety is by looking for “similarities and differences” in the buildings compared to Grenfell tower.

All of these checks come amid concerns in the schools sector about proposed new fire safety rules from the DfE, which unions claim “water down” current policy.

Education and fire unions this week wrote to education secretary Justine Greening demanding for “urgent reassurances” that the plans won’t go ahead.

Draft new fire safety rules propose to take away the “expectation” that all new schools are fitted with fire-preventing sprinklers.

Unions are also concerned about planned changes to fire compartmentalisation requirements.

Dividing buildings into smaller sections is a way of reducing fire risks, and compartment walls and floors made from flame-resistant materials can help stop fire from spreading.

The education department has proposed increasing the permitted size of compartmentalised areas in all schools by 150 per cent, and removing the requirement for each floor to be compartmentalised in schools which don’t have sprinklers.

The revised guidance also removed sections from the original policy discouraging the use of combustible materials for building cladding.