Labour pledges school fire safety overhaul

A future Labour government will put sprinkler systems in all new school buildings and pay to remove asbestos and flammable cladding from existing sites, the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has announced.

Today’s commitment forms part of a £14 billion capital investment pledged by Labour, which the party claims will “bring all schools up to a good standard”. This represents a slight increase on the £13 billion in school maintenance funding promised by the party in the run-up to last year’s election.

Debate over fire safety in schools has intensified since the Grenfell Tower disaster last year, which killed 71 people and left hundreds homeless.

The government has already been forced to review its plans to weaken guidance on the need or sprinkler systems, having previously claimed that additional spending on sprinklers “would significantly outweigh any relatively modest saving from preventing some damage to school buildings”.

Now ministers are under more pressure after new figures released earlier this month revealed that of the 260 schools rebuilt as part of phase one of the government’s priority school building programme, just 74 have, or are planned to have, sprinklers fitted.

The latest figures echo the findings of a Schools Week investigation last June, which found that the proportion of new schools being built with fire-preventing sprinklers halved to just 35 per cent since 2010. The government subseqently admitted it did not know how many of its flagship free schools had sprinkler systems installed.

Angela Rayner

It also emerged last year that a number of schools failed new cladding safety checks committed in the wake of Grenfell.

And last month, the Fire Brigades Union and National Education Union accused the government of a “cavalier attitude” to fire safety, after it emerged that a school which was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 2016, is set to be rebuilt without sprinklers because the original building did not have them.

The two unions wrote to the education secretary, Damian Hinds, to demand action, after it was discovered that Selsey Academy in West Sussex will apparently not be fitted with sprinklers because its previous buildings did not have them.

Last year, the National Audit Office found that it would cost £6.7 billion to bring every school building up to a “satisfactory” standard, but Labour says it will spend more.

Writing in the Sunday People, Rayner said her party would “provide the full £14 billion that is needed to bring all schools up to a good standard”.

“Within that, we will put money aside to make sure schools are safe. To remove asbestos and flammable cladding and fit lifesaving sprinklers.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    I appreciate that asking questions takes more time than simply regurgitating what a political party announces, but this statement smacks of political opportunism of the highest order, with little understanding of any of the details.
    So Angela Rayner has pledged “to remove asbestos”. Have you questioned her understanding of what is such a significant legacy of the construction industry? Does she, or whoever came up with this pledge, understand the difference between white asbestos, blue asbestos and brown asbestos and when asbestos is ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’.
    And the most basic question, tellingly not asked here, can she give any sort of figure for the total cost of removing asbestos from all school buildings? If so it would interesting to know how anyone’s come to that figure, given I’ve never come across a local authority with the slightest idea of the costs of asbestos removal.
    Don’t get me wrong, removing all asbestos and installing sprinklers in every school would be a good thing. As would increasing all teachers’ pay by 20%, ensuring every school had good quality local playing fields, 21st century technology, modern buildings, quality nutritious food and so on.

  2. Mark Watson

    Janet makes good points above, and I don’t think anyone would argue that removing all asbestos from all schools would be the ideal scenario.
    However the cost of removing asbestos can be eye-watering. And it’s not only the cost – asbestos isn’t just in ceiling tiles it can be part of the structure of the building itself which makes removal nigh on impossible.
    The moment you start removing asbestos, health and safety means you have to start closing down any affected areas. Hence why almost all removal works, other than the chronic emergencies, happen in holidays. Given there are thousands and thousands of schools with asbestos in them, even if the money tree was unlimited it would take a very long time to carry out a full removal, especially given there are only a certain number of people that have the expertise to carry out the work.
    Getting rid of all asbestos would be a good thing, but I don’t believe any politician who glibly says they’d get rid of it all. And I don’t expect Schools Week, which bills itself as investigative journalism, to simply parrot such unsubstantiated puff without questioning it.