Schools

Ministers ‘drag heels’ over ‘crucial’ fire safety advice

'Crucial' consultation on fire safety closed over a year ago

'Crucial' consultation on fire safety closed over a year ago

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The government is accused of “dragging its heels” over “crucial” new fire safety guidance for new school buildings. 

A long-awaited consultation on fire safety ran from May to August 2021, with a response due in the same year.

The non-statutory draft guidance proposed sprinklers in some new schools, but snubbed calls for installing them in all newly built premises. Fire safety experts dubbed the decision “incomprehensible”.

But 13 months since the consultation closed, the Department for Education has yet to publish its final advice. 

Home Office figures show that in the 2021-22 financial year, there were more than 300 fires at schools in England – almost one a day.

Since the consultation closed, more than 120 new schools have opened, including 23 new special schools. It’s not clear how many are in new buildings.

‘Alarming lack of urgency’

Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the lack of response “shows an alarming lack of urgency over the crucial issue of fire safety” 

“It is frustrating that the government is now dragging its heels over a decision on what measures to put in place. In the meantime, school buildings are being designed, commissioned and built without clarity over this matter.” 

The draft guidance, the first update in 14 years, proposed that automatic fire suppression systems – such as sprinklers – should be installed in new special schools and new school buildings over 110 metres – effectively four storeys or more.

Fire safety
Dunn

But fire experts and school unions said this would leave most new schools “exposed to fires”. It was “incomprehensible” that the DfE would “choose not to take this opportunity to strengthen safety guidance and reduce the likelihood of further disruption in schools”. 

Gavin Tomlinson, the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, said it had “long been calling” for sprinklers in all new schools and substantially refurbished buildings.

“We urge the DfE to take this opportunity to make schools safer and to publish its response to the consultation as soon as possible.”

The guidance also raised “the standard required for external wall cladding”. For buildings of any height “the choice of materials for external walls . . . needs to be based on reducing the risk of fire spread over the walls”.

It adds that a fire-warning signal should be distinct from other signals and “be accompanied by clear verbal instructions”.

Class change signals, such as a bell, should not exceed five seconds to “avoid risk of confusion” and single-escape stairs should be banned in new constructions.

Postcode lottery on sprinklers

Councils are making their own decisions as they await the guidance decision, which has fuelled concerns of a “postcode lottery”.

Sprinklers were fitted in the £6.9 million rebuild of Ravensdale Infant School in Derby after fire destroyed it in 2020 (pictured above).

As a result, Derby City and Derbyshire County Council signed a statement of intent committing to fit sprinklers in all new schools or renovations. 

Likewise, the one-storey Ash Green School in Halifax, which was destroyed in an arson attack, will have sprinklers in its new premises. 

Mungo Sheppard, its head, said: “Having seen part of our school completely burned to the ground, damage that would clearly have been massively mitigated by the presence of sprinklers, then I would certainly agree that any new build of a school/extension of one should have a sprinkler system as an essential matter of course.”

Dunn said an estimated 90,000 children were disrupted by school fires each year, with the cost of repairs “enormous”.

“The government needs to set out clear guidance supported with sufficient capital funding to put the measures in place.”

A DfE spokesperson said the safety of pupils and staff in schools was “paramount, which is why we are reviewing our fire safety guidance to strengthen the requirements on new buildings, or for when major alterations are taking place to existing buildings”.

The department was “analysing feedback” and “plans to respond to the consultation shortly”.

The government’s response to its call for evidence after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 was delayed for nearly two years. 

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