Government ministers have been heavily criticised after quietly abandoning the requirement for fire sprinklers to be fitted in new schools, in what has been called a “retrograde step” by fire chiefs according to The Independent.

Fire & Rescue service imageAn update to the Department of Education’s (DfE) Design in Fire Safety in Schools stated that “Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety”.

“Therefore,” it added, “[guidelines] no longer include an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.”

The move has been lambasted by fire officers and follows two recent major school fires.

More than 75 firefighters were called out to tackle a blaze at Selsey Academy in Sussex on 21 August leaving the structure “effectively a skeleton”, while on 24 August, 12 fire engines tackled a blaze at Cecil Jones Academy in Southend-on-Sea.

According to The Mail on Sunday, neither school was fitted with sprinklers.

Julian Parsons, of the Chief Fire Officers Association, told The Argus: “This is a retrograde step that doesn’t make any sense. Sprinklers don’t just save lives, they prevent fires from spreading and causing significant damage and disruption to our children’s education.”

Brian Robinson, Chairman of the Fire Sector Federations, said the Government “appears to have relegated the principles of property protection to an afterthought”.

He added: “Many of our members see no reason to change the current policy of a risk-based approach for the requirement to install sprinklers in schools and urge the Department to reconsider.”

Responding to the move, Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Women and Equalities, said in a Twitter post: “A disgrace, Tory Ministers are to remove requirement to have water sprinklers fitted to new schools, sneaking announcement out on DfE website.”

Installing sprinklers into new schools was a policy introduced in 2007 by Labour Schools Minister Jim Knight.

According to research by the Chief Fire Officers Association there have been 5,132 fires in educational buildings between 2003/04 and 2013/14, resulting in 148 casualties.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Children’s safety is paramount, and we are clear that sprinklers should always be fitted in new school buildings where required by fire safety legislation, and where a fire risk assessment shows that a school is high risk. This policy is absolutely in line with the latest fire safety advice.

“In revising the Fire Safety Design for Schools guidance, consultant fire safety specialists were used and the draft was reviewed and quality assured by the Building Research Establishment. Our consultation on the draft received a good response, including from the Chief Fire Officers’ Association and a number of fire and rescue services, whose comments we will take into account before publication.”