Last week, faced with criticism that it was putting profit before children’s safety, it was reported in the press that the Government had finally caved in to pressure from the NUT, FBU and ATL not to weaken current fire safety advice to schools.
Although this was welcome news, if true, it was grossly irresponsible of the Government to have brought forward proposals which would allow schools to be built without fire sprinklers, with combustible material used for cladding and large school compartments to be without sprinklers. Without the appalling Grenfell Tower tragedy, the NUT, FBU and ATL are certain the revised and watered-down Building Bulletin would have become the Department’s official advice, with potential dire consequences for health and safety in our schools.
Simply announcing the retention of the current Building Bulletin 100 guidance does not, however, go far enough. There is now much more which needs to be done to address all the issues which have come to the fore since the Grenfell Tower fire.
It is clear that current guidance is being ignored in the rush to build new schools as cheaply as possible. Building Bulletin 100 is clear that all new schools should have sprinklers fitted, except in a few low risk schools. Despite this, since 2010 only 35 per cent of new schools have been fitted with sprinklers.
The issue of flammable cladding on school buildings also needs to be urgently examined. Building Bulletin 100 discourages its use, but we have little confidence that its provisions have been adhered to since 2010, given the poor record on sprinkler installation.
In a letter to Justine Greening, sent today, we are calling upon the Government to:
- Confirm that it has in fact abandoned attempts to weaken fire safety advice for schools and will not be proceeding with the revised Building Bulletin;
- Bring forward legislation to require sprinklers to be fitted to all new schools as the current system based on an ‘expectation’ that this will happen has clearly failed;
- Review all schools built since 2010 without sprinklers to determine whether they should have been built without sprinklers on the basis of risk, and provide us with the supporting evidence for each decision;
- Ensure that all decisions about sprinkler installation are centrally monitored;
- Instigate urgent checks by qualified and competent assessors on all required and recommended fire safety measures including the suitability of the cladding used on school buildings, set out a timetable for the removal of all combustible cladding and ensure that combustible cladding is never again used on school buildings.
Kevin Courtney, National Union of Teachers general secretary, said: “For far too long the Government has viewed health and safety as a ‘red tape’ burden. It has been seen as an afterthought and an opportunity to try to cut corners and save money. We all now know the terrible consequences of that approach. Fire safety in schools must now become a priority and for this to happen the Government needs to heed our advice.”
Matt Wrack, Fire Brigade Union general secretary, said: “The safety of the public and firefighters is a concern for us all, but nothing can be more important than protecting children from harm. Fire safety standards and wider building and other safety measures in all schools must be improved with urgency. I urge the government to announce an early commitment to take action on these matters.”
Dr Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary, said: “The Government needs to listen to the advice of fire safety experts, prioritise the health and safety of pupils and school staff and ensure that all schools are as safe as possible from fires. Keeping pupils and staff safe is far more important than penny-pinching.”