Sprinklers: An illogical decision

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Kevin Courtney, general secretary, National Union of Teachers

School fires are common but the requirement for new schools to have sprinklers has been dropped. Kevin Courtney says this is short-sighted and dangerous

Despite strong opposition from the NUT and fire rescue sector, the government has dropped the requirement for new schools to be fitted with sprinklers. This short-sighted decision will put the lives of pupils, school staff and the emergency services at risk.

On August 21, just days before the start of the academic year, Selsey Academy in Sussex caught ablaze. Around 100 firefighters tackled the fire, which spread so quickly that large parts of the school were completely destroyed. The school had not been fitted with a sprinkler system.

This is just one example of the devastating and long-lasting impact school fires can have on pupils, school staff and the wider community. When a school is destroyed by a fire, there is significant disruption to pupils’ education, compounded by the loss of schoolwork, resources and equipment.

The financial implications of school fires are significant. Costs include rebuilding the school, replacing equipment and temporarily relocating pupils. The Fire Protection Association reports that in 2014 the average school fire cost £2.8 million, up from £330,000 in 2009.

School fires are far too common, and while the number of school fires has reduced, in 2014/15 there were nearly 650 school fires in England alone.

We have campaigned for many years for all new and refurbished schools to be fitted with sprinklers, and in 2007 the then government introduced an “expectation” – in a document called Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) – that all new schools would be fitted with sprinklers. It is our view that the installation of sprinklers in new schools should be compulsory, as it is in Scotland and Wales. The majority (70 per cent) of new schools built between 2007 and 2010 were fitted with sprinklers.

The impact of school fires can be significantly reduced if sprinklers are fitted, as they activate quickly and contain fires. This provides a safer means of exit for pupils and staff and reduces the risks to the emergency services. Critically, there have been no reported deaths from fires in buildings with sprinklers.

Sprinklers also significantly reduce the damage to the school, meaning shorter rebuild times and lower associated costs. In fact, schools can reopen within a day or so after a fire if a sprinkler was fitted.

Recently, the government launched a consultation on BB100. Shockingly, one of the changes proposed was to remove the “expectation” that new schools be built with sprinklers. The NUT strongly opposed the changes, as did the Fire Brigades Union and the Fire Sector Federation.

Despite this opposition, it has since been reported that the government has gone ahead with this change in policy.
The government has also refused to provide any information about who responded to the consultation and who supported the changes. This secrecy gives the impression that the consultation was not undertaken in good faith and that the decision had already been made.

Myself and Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, have written to education secretary, Justine Greening, strongly criticising this change in policy, and calling on her to urgently reverse the decision and reinstate, at the very least, the expectation that new schools be fitted with sprinklers.

The change in policy is illogical and will put the lives of pupils, school staff and the emergency services at risk. Since 2010, the number of new schools fitted with sprinklers has already halved, and the NUT has real concerns that this change will mean that in the future, no new schools will be fitted with life-saving sprinklers.

  • Kevin Courtney is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Visit www.teachers.org.uk


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