Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June last year, the importance of fire safety systems has come in to focus.

One sector reviewing this area is education. Many school buildings have cladding which is not fire resistant and contains asbestos. Often, schools are not fitted with sprinkler systems.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, has announced that a future Labour government will put sprinkler systems in all new school buildings and pay to remove asbestos and flammable cladding from existing sites. This commitment forms part of a £14 billion capital investment pledged by Labour, which the party claims will “bring all schools up to a good standard”.

In addition, the government has been forced to review the guidance on sprinklers in schools having previously claimed that additional spending on sprinklers would outweigh any savings in preventing damage to school buildings.

The guidance was previously the subject of a consultation in August 2016 which proposed changes to its wording. The changes were notable as they removed the expectation that most new school buildings would be fitted with sprinklers. Despite criticism of the changes suggested in the consultation, the government insisted the recommendation was only a change of language, not of actual rules governing sprinkler installation.

However, figures released last month by School's Week revealed that of the 260 schools rebuilt as part of phase one of the government’s priority school building programme, just 74 have, or are planned to have, sprinklers fitted. Furthermore, according to David Amess, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fire safety, since 2010 the proportion of new school buildings installing sprinkler systems has plummeted from 70 per cent to 35 per cent.

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it appears that any decision on the guidance has been postponed. At the date of writing, the consultation is still considering the responses received. Whether the deferral of any changes to the guidance results in an increased use of sprinklers in schools remains to be seen.

Requirements for fire safety in schools:

Schools are required to undertake risk assessments to identify the general fire precautions needed to safeguard the safety of occupants in case of fire, including their safe means of escape.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) fire legislation has become simplified. The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a guide for schools - fire safety risk assessment: educational premises. The guide deals with the provision and management of fire safety.

You will need to:

  • ensure procedures are in place to reduce the likelihood of fire;
  • maintain fire detection and alarm systems;
  • ensure staff and pupils are familiar with emergency evacuation procedures; and
  • calculate the numbers of persons likely to be in any areas of assembly and ensure your exit capacities are sufficient for those numbers.

It is important that:

  • fire risk assessments are kept up to date; and
  • fire precautions remain current and adequate (they should be reviewed in detail when significant alterations are made to a school’s premises).