A coalition of 23 industry bodies representing hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, surveyors, architects, insurers, and engineers, has accused the government of creating a fire safety “lottery” in schools.

In a letter to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, the coalition has demanded the government urgently rethink plans that would only see sprinklers installed in school buildings over 11 metres in height, warning it would leave “the majority of schools exposed to fires”.

The letter describes it as “incomprehensible” that the DfE “would choose not to take this opportunity to strengthen safety guidance” by making sprinklers compulsory in all new build and majorly refurbished schools.

Brought together by school insurer Zurich Municipal, the letter coincides with the end (17 August) of a Department for Education consultation into planned revisions to its fire safety design guidance in schools.

It comes as data obtained by Zurich under freedom of information shows just 8% of new schools built since 2015 have been fitted with sprinklers.

Tilden Watson, Zurich Municipal Head of Education, said: “The collective voice and expertise of these industry bodies should not be ignored. The government’s current proposals fall woefully short of the measures needed to tackle school blazes. It makes no economic sense to invest millions of pounds in an asset without taking steps to adequately protect it. We need to bring England in line with Wales and Scotland, where sprinklers are already compulsory in all new and majorly refurbished schools.”

In the letter, the coalition describe it as “deeply concerning” that England’s protection standards for schools fall below those of Scotland and Wales, where sprinklers are legally required. The letter added: “It should not take a school fire fatality for the Government to address this disparity.”

Industry professionals also warn of a “postcode lottery” over fire safety, with some local authorities in England, including Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council, already mandating sprinklers in new build schools.

Between April 2015 and March 2020, firefighters were called to blazes at 1,467 primary schools and 834 secondary schools. Some 47 primary and secondary school buildings were completely gutted, and 230 others seriously damaged. (1) Major school blazes can cost up to £20m, according to claims data from Zurich Municipal.

“Whilst the short-term costs of a fire such as the loss of facilities/equipment and the need to rent temporary accommodation can be calculated, the longer-term effects such as disruption to the education of children, already severely impacted as a result of the pandemic…are all much harder to quantify.”

The new rules would require sprinklers to be installed in new special schools and boarding accommodation, as well as school buildings with floors higher than 11 metres.