Unions call for 'urgent' clarity on fire-proof cladding and sprinklers in schools

20th June 2017 at 11:50
Three unions have written to Justine Greening voicing concerns over fire safety in schools

The NUT and ATL teaching unions, together with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), have written a joint letter to education secretary Justine Greening seeking urgent reassurances about fire safety in schools in light of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

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 they say "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 guidance. It responded to NUT and FBU protests by claiming that it was consulting on the changes.

The Department for Education's website states that this is still the case, 10 months after its consultation closed.

The DfE's proposed replacement Building Bulletin states: "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."

The proposed bulletin made other changes that the unions believe would "significantly increase the fire risk in schools", including removing sections from the original 2007 bulletin discouraging the use of combustible materials for building cladding, say the unions.

The NUT and FBU say they 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.

'The government has behaved shamefully'

In a joint written statement today, the three unions said: "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."

The unions added: "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.  

"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 downgrading fire safety in schools.’

Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, 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.”

The NUT and ATL unions are set to formally merge in September, when they will join to become the National Education Union.

The DfE has been contacted for comment.

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