The government’s proposal to only advise the use of sprinklers in some new schools will leave the majority “exposed to fires”, education unions and fire safety experts have warned.
In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, 23 organisations said it was “incomprehensible” that the Department for Education had snubbed calls to have sprinklers in all new schools.
The draft non-statutory guidance proposes that automatic fire suppression systems – such as sprinklers – should be installed in new special schools and new school buildings over 11 metres tall, effectively four storeys or higher.
But campaigners want sprinklers to be mandatory for all new and refurbished schools.
The signatories of the letter include school leaders’ unions ASCL and NAHT and teachers’ union the National Education Union.
Also on the list of signatories is Conservative MP Sir David Amess, chair of the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group, the Association of British Insurers, the National Fire Chief Council and the Fire Brigades’ Union.
The letter warns of a risk of a “postcode lottery”, as some local authorities are proactively mandating sprinklers in new school buildings.
This includes Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council. Two schools in the county were deliberately set alight last year, leaving hundreds of children remotely learning just months after the first lockdown. Neither school had sprinklers.
A Freedom of Information request by insurance firm Zurich in February found just 8.5 per cent of new schools built since 2015 were sprinkler protected.
Campaigners said they were “concerned” the proposals will “likely see this number reduce further and still leave the majority of schools exposed to fires”.
The signatories said given the government’s concern about pandemic learning loss, “it is incomprehensible to us that the Department for Education would choose not to take this opportunity to strengthen safety guidance, and reduce the likelihood of further disruption in schools”.
“We will continue to remind the government of this missed opportunity and their failure to protect and improve the resilience of the school estate in the event of future school fires.
“We urge the government to fundamentally rethink its approach and update building regulations so that they unequivocally and clearly mandate the implementation of sprinklers in all new build and majorly refurbished schools in order to protect and improve the resilience of the school estate and to protect life.”
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said it was “deeply concerning” that the “minimum protection standards being set out for schools in England fall far below those of Wales and Scotland”.
In Scotland, sprinklers are mandatory in new build and major refurbished schools, and in Wales are required for central funding.
“Fires are a UK-wide concern, yet with this disparity in approach the government risks creating a post-code lottery for pupils, both in terms of safety and disruption to education.
“If the government is as committed to ‘educational recovery’ as they say, then a key part of this should be ensuring that the school estate is fit for purpose.”
The DfE was contacted for comment.
The department previously said all responses to the consultation would be considered and a final revised version of the guidance published in due course.
A spokesperson said in June that the consultation proposed “a requirement for sprinklers to be fitted when constructing sleeping accommodation and in all school buildings over 11 metres – in addition to the existing requirement for sprinklers in any other circumstances required by building regulations”.