Suffolk concern over school safety as DfE reveals sprinklers are not mandatory
PUBLISHED: 11:20 24 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:20 24 April 2020
Education chiefs in Suffolk have approved plans which mean all new-build special educational needs schools must be equipped with sprinkler systems, after it emerged the Department for Education did not make the system mandatory.
A report published last week revealed the shock news that the Department for Education did not fund sprinkler systems in new schools it designed – and did not even make it a mandatory requirement.
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It meant that the council was forced to adopt a policy this week which requires all new-build SEND schools to have the fire-safety system in place going forward. Contributions from developers are expected to fund those so as not to leave the council footing the bill.
According to the DfE, fire safety features were designed to ensure new schools were safe but did not necessarily mean they had to be sprinklers.
A spokeswoman said: “All schools are required to have an up-to-date fire risk assessment and to conduct regular fire drills – and all new school buildings must be signed-off by an inspector to certify that they meet the requirements of building regulations.
“Where sprinklers are considered necessary to protect pupils and staff, they must be installed.”
On Tuesday, Suffolk County Council chief executive Nicola Beach approved the policy on inclusion of sprinklers for all new-build SEND schools. She delegated authority to officers if mainstream schools required them in future.
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The council’s cabinet was unable to meet to decide the matter, which meant the chief executive was able to approve the decision under delegated powers.
But Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the opposition Labour group, said he was “deeply concerned”.
“The National Fire Chiefs Council has repeatedly demanded the installation of sprinklers in all new and refurbished schools, yet, after this decision, it will still not be mandatory to fit them in Suffolk’s mainstream schools,” he said.
“It feels like there is an ongoing disagreement between the Conservatives in central government and those at Suffolk County Council over who is ultimately responsible for funding these critical safety measures.
“It would be shocking if a money dispute led to the disregarding of expert advice and risked the safety of our staff and children.”
Councillor Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said the new build SEND schools being developed in the county meant it was a necessary policy to ensure the safety of pupils.
She said: “I am pleased that the decision has been made to include sprinkler systems in all of the new build special schools.
“The council is commissioning a number of new special schools which will open in the next two years and, given the vulnerability of pupils with special educational needs and the high cost of the specialist equipment fitted in these schools, it is important to ensure these buildings are as well protected as they can be in the event of a fire.”
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