Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, school unions have called for the government to survey all schools for combustible cladding and to fit all schools with fire sprinklers
The National Education Union (NEU), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL) have published joint guidance for school leaders on fire risk assessments in schools in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The appalling fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017 brought into sharp focus wider questions about fire safety.
This has understandably caused widespread concern throughout the education sector about how many school buildings have cladding which is not fire resistant. Pupils, parents, staff and the wider community who use educational buildings need reassurance that they are not being exposed to a similar fire risk.
It is important to emphasise that the Grenfell Tower fire occurred in the middle of the night in a building without a common fire alarm system. In contrast school buildings are occupied during the day, have a common fire alarm system and, unlike in tower blocks, practice evacuation procedures.
A tower block may be constructed with only one staircase whereas only the smallest school building would be allowed to be built with only one escape staircase.
While the risks may be lower, a fire involving combustible cladding on the outside of a school has the potential to cause harm and so the threat must be taken seriously.
Now is a good time for schools to consider fire safety issues more broadly and to revisit fire risk assessments in the light of what happened at Grenfell Tower.
To assist school leaders in understanding the risks to schools and how best to address these, the NEU, NAHT and ASCL have published joint guidance to answer common questions and advise on how best to review fire risk assessments to ensure that children and staff are kept safe.
THE NEED TO SURVEY SCHOOLS
Two schools required urgent inspections by the Fire and Rescue Service following the Department for Education’s (DfE) limited programme of cladding checks to identify school buildings which are 18 metres or higher, or providing residential accommodation, and which are fitted with Aluminium Composite Material cladding.
The NEU, NAHT and ASCL are calling upon the government to survey all school buildings to determine whether any inappropriate cladding has been used in their construction. Given that nearly 90 per cent of schools also contain asbestos, the DfE should also use this survey to establish the location and condition of all asbestos in our schools to prevent any exposure to this deadly material.
Rachel Reeves MP, who chairs the Asbestos in Schools Group, is concerned that asbestos may be disturbed if cladding is removed.
She has written to education secretary, Justine Greening, urging her to ensure that the specifications for this work make full and thorough provision for the risk of disturbing asbestos in any school where works may take place.
The three unions are also urging the government to introduce a legal requirement that all new and refurbished school buildings are fitted with a sprinkler system.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “In the aftermath of the appalling fire at Grenfell Tower, attention has rightly focused on others who could be at risk, including children and school staff. We have campaigned successfully to stop the government weakening guidance on school fire safety.
The National Education Union will continue to hold the government to account to ensure that this guidance is adhered to. All new and refurbished schools should be fitted with sprinkler systems and a review of cladding on all schools needs to take place. Such a review should also focus on identification of asbestos and lead, in the longer term, to a programme of phased removal.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Parents rightly expect school buildings to be safe and secure places for their children.
The dreadful events at Grenfell Tower highlight the importance of building safety, and we now urge the government to review all school buildings to determine that their cladding is safe.
We also need a concerted effort to identify the existence of asbestos within schools and, as a minimum, all new and refurbished schools should have sprinklers fitted as standard. School leaders take the safety of buildings very seriously, and we need the government to provide the right support and investment the school estate so desperately needs.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “School leaders take the issue of safety extremely seriously, and already have programmes and procedures in place to ensure that schools are safe places in which to work and learn.
“But they need expert support in identifying and addressing the risks associated with issues like cladding and asbestos, and the government must provide that support. We are urging the government to carry out a comprehensive survey of the whole school estate so that it can identify where any risks exist and then to take action to deal with those risks. Parents must be reassured that schools are as safe as we can possibly make them.”
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