Sprinklers in schools: Has the expectation been downgraded?

There seems to be a conflict between making it easier to set up new schools and insisting on the highest standards of safety, writes a veteran investigative journalist

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How could our elected government possibly think it was a good idea to propose downgrading an expectation for new schools in England to be fitted with fire sprinklers?

The question comes to mind after making a few inquiries into this shocking case, in which this aspect of fire regulation in schools was proposed last year for relaxation.

The case, details of which I discuss below after a little investigation prompted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, seems highly revealing of a wider culture of deregulation. It also offers insights into a lack of transparency about important decisions which I find simultaneously staggering and depressingly predictable, given this government’s record.

Last July, the DfE published proposals for an update on the previous Labour government’s Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools (BB100). Published in 2007, this had drawn praise for its statement that: “It is now our expectation that all new schools will have sprinklers fitted”, with exceptions only where it could be demonstrated that a school was low-risk.

But the 2016 DfE document downgraded this, stating that: “The Building Regulations [for existing schools] do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety, and therefore BB100 no longer includes an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.”

A host of organisations seem to have complained: I have come across evidence from the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Brigades Union, the National Union of Teachers and the Fire Sector Federation. Meanwhile, Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer who is now honorary secretary of the All-Party Fire and Rescue Group, told Sunday’s Observer that “everybody bombarded the ministers in education” with advice that this was a very bad idea.

The NUT told me that there were complaints that the proposals would also have allowed an increase in the size of units which builders have to design to “compartmentalise” fires, and that they “removed the requirement to surround [school] cloakrooms with fire-resistant construction”.

Lack of response

All this seems to have provoked is for ministers to put the changes on hold. The DfE’s consultation finished last August, but we went into this month’s general election with the government having neither responded to the consultation nor even informed the public as to what people responding to it had felt. I was unable to find the consultation document itself when I looked for it on Friday last week.

In frustration at the lack of news, the Fire Brigades Union and the NUT wrote to education secretary Justine Greening in October, questioning whether any organisation had responded positively to the consultation. The NUT also asked, under freedom of information, for a list of respondents and which ones had backed the relaxation of rules on sprinklers.

The DfE, the unions said, responded by declining to give the information – one of its reasons being that “officials are in the process of assessing the responses”. Eight months on, they still seem busy with that.

This is not good enough. Apart from anything else, it should not be possible for our political system to allow ministers to go into an election without having released information which presumably would have been embarrassing for them.

More pressing is the question of deregulation, and what the priorities are for policy-makers. The Observer, seemingly interpreting the views of Ronnie King, reported that “the need to build more schools fast and cheaply appeared to have prevailed” in the relaxation of this guidance.

It is not impossible to think of this as part of a wider pattern of ministers seeking to make it easier for building firms to put up schools, both as they seek to hit targets for new free schools and as part of a more ideological enthusiasm for deregulation.

In 2014, for example, the government changed the guidance on the size of new and replacement school buildings, reducing the amount of required space per pupil. As the DfE admits on its website, “the minimum gross area recommended for buildings....averages 15% lower than that recommended” in the Labour-era guidance it replaced.

Safety first

Even this, though, is not binding. The DfE’s note on that guidance says: “In line with policies which seek to increase choice and opportunity in state-funded education, these guidelines will not necessarily have to be met in every case and should always be applied flexibly.”

In terms of “increasing choice and opportunity in state-funded education,” I wonder whether this paragraph was referring to choice and opportunity for parents and pupils or school developers.

More widely still, I was told by a former DfE insider recently that, post-2010, ministers were very keen to promote the idea of deregulating schools. This hardly seems surprising, given that an internal DfE document from 2013, entitled Deregulating the Schools System-Phase 2, even sought ideas from civil servants on how to push the envelope further on removing “legislative controls”.

Is there a trade-off between the needs of pupils to be educated in safe and spacious buildings and the freedom for commercial companies, carrying out contracts for the public sector, to erect them cheaply?

Regulations should have been put in place to protect the interests of children. It is to be hoped that the national disaster of Grenfell will prompt a radical re-evaluation of these kinds of calculations.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and author of Education by Numbers. You can read his back catalogue here. He tweets @warwickmansell.

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