Not a single school building constructed or planned in Croydon over the past five years has been fitted with a sprinkler system, despite building regulations going back for a decade having an “expectation” that sprinklers should be included in all new-build schools.
The National Union of Teachers says that any failure to include sprinklers in new school buildings is “unacceptable” and that the trend to avoid meeting the 2007 building regs has made them “increasingly concerned” that this has put “children, staff and school property at risk”.
According to official figures provided by Croydon Council under a Freedom of Information request, since 2012, 35 school building projects have been undertaken within the borough of Croydon, including some re-builds and expansions. Two more are awaiting planning permission.
The work conducted has cost at least an estimated £250million of public cash, for schools operated by various educational businesses including the Harris Federation, Oasis and Ark, as well as for the Church of England. Around one-third of the school building projects – 13 – have been or are to be undertaken for Croydon Council itself.
The schools have been built to accommodate nearly 20,000 pupils, aged between four and 18.
Inside Croydon conducted its investigation following the dreadful tragedy at the Grenfell Tower in north Kensington in June, when at least 80 people lost their lives in a 24-storey residential tower block.
At the Grenfell Tower, there were no sprinklers fitted. As an older block, there was no requirement for sprinklers when it was built, though there was a recommendation from a coroner in 2013 that tall residential blocks should have sprinklers installed as an essential fire safety precaution.
But for new school builds, there was an “expectation” (though not a requirement) that they should have sprinklers since 2007.
This was set out in Building Bulletin 100: Design for Fire Safety in School.
In 2007 Jim Knight, the then Schools Minister in a Labour Government, said: “It is now our expectation that all new schools will have sprinklers fitted. Any exceptions to this will have to be justified by demonstrating that a school is low risk and that the use of sprinklers would not be good value for money.”
Between April 2007 and May 2010, around 70 per cent of new schools had sprinkler systems fitted, according to figures from the NUT.
Since May 2010, this figure has dropped to 35 per cent.
In Croydon, that figure is 0 per cent.
May 2010 is a significant date because it coincides with the election of a Tory-led Government.
Croydon Council has been applying a lower standard of fire safety provision in its schools at least since 2010 – planning permission for the shiny new building at Harris Academy Purley (the former Haling Manor secondary in South Croydon), was approved without including sprinklers by Croydon Council’s planning committee on December 1, 2010. Howard Primary’s extension building was given planning permission in March 2010.
More recently, the Tory Government has looked to downgrade even the expectation for sprinklers being fitted in new schools. Last summer, the Government consulted on a revision of Fire Safety Design for Schools.
The revised document circulated by the Department for Education has deleted the wording about the “expectation” that sprinklers will be fitted in new schools.
The document also includes new guidance on “compartmentation”, an important element in fire safety and prevention. Fire compartments help to prevent the spread of fire. The proposed changes include more than doubling the size of fire compartments in schools without sprinklers, from 800m² to 2000m² .This means much larger spaces that aren’t separated by fire protection measures. Normally, such design freedoms would only ever be coupled with sprinklers. The Fire Brigades Union is very concerned about this.
Even the Government’s own revised building regulations acknowledge the effectiveness of sprinklers. It says that they “are particularly good at limiting fire size, spread and damage and are therefore a very effective property protection measure. In some situations property protection may be an important design consideration for business continuity, particularly in large secondary schools and some special schools. Property protection standard sprinkler systems will be used in these situations”.
It seems that the Tory Government places the protection of property as a greater priority than the protection of the lives of school children and staff.
The proposed revised document states: “The Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety and therefore no longer include an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.”
The move has been condemned by the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, the Association of British Insurers, Fire Sector Federation, British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, and by Labour MPs Angela Rayner and Kate Hoey, who last year tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament “deploring the decision to scrap the expectation that sprinklers will be installed in all new school buildings except for low-risk schools”.
Yet in Croydon, the council, which was under Tory control until May 2014, and the DfE has been applying that no-sprinkler policy for seven years – including while the “expectation” that sprinklers should be fitted has been included in the building regulations.
It is not as if the studied avoidance of building regulations over sprinklers saves anyone any significant sums of money, if any at all.
The Association of British Insurers, who are not usually regarded as a bastion of radicalism, suggest that that the cost of installing a sprinkler can be recouped in less than 10 years simply because of savings on insurance premiums.
The Local Government Association estimates that fitting sprinklers can add up to 2 per cent to the construction costs of a new school build – which, in the case of the £11million Harris Primary Academy Purley Way (catchy name, eh?) which is due to open next month, would mean a bill of just £220,000 for the peace of mind of parents and staff. The LGA also reports that some insurance companies significantly reduce premiums, and remove excesses (which can be around £100,000) when schools are fitted with sprinklers.
All of which makes it even more inexplicable as to why Croydon Council should have avoided implementing the building regulations for the past 10 years – especially under a Labour administration since 2014.
“The ‘expectation’ set out in Building Bulletin 100 is that all new schools should be fitted with sprinkler systems unless they are assessed as very low risk,” Sarah Lyons, the NUT’s health and safety officer, told Inside Croydon.
“The NUT is increasingly concerned that this provision is being widely ignored, putting children, staff and school property at risk. The DfE does not hold central data on whether all new schools are constructed with or without sprinklers so has no way of checking how frequently the sprinkler ‘expectation’ in Building Bulletin is being flouted. This is simply unacceptable.”
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