20 June 2017
Today the Fire brigades Union (FBU), National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers ( ATL ) have written to Justine Greening seeking urgent reassurances about fire safety in schools in light of the tragic and avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower last week.
The NUT and FBU have been pressing the Government since last year to reverse its proposed changes to fire safety requirements for school buildings which, in our view, show a total disregard for the health and safety of children and staff.
Last summer, the Government announced that the expectation that sprinklers should be fitted in new schools in England would be removed from its Building Bulletin guidance. Although it responded to NUT and FBU protests by claiming that it was still consulting, its proposed replacement Building Bulletin clearly set out the Government’s intention: ‘The Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety and therefore [guidelines] no longer include an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.’
Of equal concern is the fact that, unbelievably, the proposed replacement Building Bulletin also made changes to fire compartmentalisation requirements, increasing the permitted size of compartmented areas in all schools and removing the requirement for each floor to be compartmented in unsprinklered schools, and removed sections from the original 2007 Bulletin discouraging the use of combustible materials for building cladding. The NUT, FBU and ATL believe that, in combination, these three changes significantly increase the fire risk in schools.
The NUT and FBU have been repeatedly refused access to information about responses to the consultation, including which respondents, if any, were in favour of the removal of the sprinkler expectation. Refusing to provide this information suggests that there was little, if any, support for the proposed move and leads us to conclude that the driving force is the desire to build new schools as cheaply as possible, even if this means playing fast and loose with the health and safety of children and school staff.
It is important to view these moves in the context of the repeated undermining and belittling of health and safety by Government since 2010, and the savage cuts affecting schools. In 2012 David Cameron’s proud boast was that his New Year’s resolution was to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’. He also said that his Government was ‘waging war against the excessive culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses.’ These remarks seemed offensive at the time but now seem crass in the extreme.
This issue has been dragging on for nearly a year and clarity is now urgently needed about the Government’s definitive position on the fitting of sprinklers in new schools, the use of combustible materials for cladding school buildings and allowing larger unsprinklered compartments in schools.
Kevin Courtney, NUT General Secretary, said: ‘The Government has behaved shamefully over this issue. It is high time the health and safety of children and staff is prioritised. We call upon the Government to make an immediate announcement that it will no longer proceed with down-grading fire safety in schools.’
Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary said: “It is staggering we still have to have this debate with the Government in the current circumstances. It highlights the endless problems we have faced when raising fire safety issues over several years.”
Mary Bousted, ATL General Secretary, said: “Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “It is shocking that the Government continues to ignore the recommendations on fire safety in schools. The Government - now more than ever - needs to make assurances that they will prioritise the health and safety of pupils and staff in school buildings and implement the changes required to keep them safe.”