School assessments

With the state of the UK’s school buildings coming under scrutiny, Steve Solomon looks at fire safety issues commonly found.

A recently released report from the National Audit Office has brought to the fore the condition of the UK’s school buildings, with growing concerns over the declining state of the fabric of buildings and the “significant safety concerns” that this raises. When it comes to fire safety, official statistics released by the Home Office show that approximately 30% of the schools inspected up to the year ending March 2022 had an unsatisfactory rating during fire safety audits.

The design of buildings for fire safety, as recognised in Approved Document B (ADB), considers the assumption that under normal circumstances a fire is unlikely to start in two different places in a building at the same time and is most likely to occur within accommodation areas, such as offices or industrial areas, as opposed to protected escape routes. This may be different in educational establishments due to the very real threat of arson which may include the setting of multiple fire points and/or the igniting of items within escape routes such as student displays and storage items.

This article will look at some of the common issues that the FPA’s experienced assessors have noted when undertaking fire risk assessments within educational premises across the UK.

Escape routes

ADB Volume 2 and DCLG guidance for educational premises both give a maximum of 18 metres for one direction of travel and 45 metres where there are two directions of travel (measured to a final exit, protected staircase or separate compartment with continued safe egress). The fire risk assessor should confirm the existing travel distances, making recommendations where appropriate which may include additional exit routes or additional compartmentation. Often due to internal layout changes, the guidance regarding acceptable travel distances are not complied with.

All final exits should be opened on a weekly basis to confirm they are operational. This is rarely the case with those not having regular footfall sometimes noted to be physically incapable of being opened during the fire risk assessment visits.

Educational buildings were often constructed when there were less students in the school or have been altered or extended over the years. With pressure to accommodate an ever-increasing number of students, some of the assembly areas such as the main hall, dining rooms, or gymnasiums may not be large enough for the number of people crammed into them. The fire risk assessor should undertake an occupancy calculation of assembly areas, using the guidance contained within ADB. This should take into account the number, size, and location of all exits, along with a floor area calculation which considers the setup of the room and what it is used for (seats in rows, standing areas, etc).


Many school buildings are old with poor compartmentation standards due to decades of mistreatment or wear and tear.

Between the 1950s and 1980s the design of many educational buildings were constructed to the CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) method. They were erected extremely quickly, often using modular steel frames which contained large voids above the false ceiling that in many instances run the entirety of the building. If a fire were to occur, it would quickly spread unchecked through these voids.

Even some more modern buildings, constructed to withstand the spread of fire, have poor standards of structural compartmentation and fire resisting doorsets that have become damaged due to wear and tear, service penetrations, or the removal of internal walls altogether.

The fire risk assessor should inspect areas above false ceilings where compartment lines are. If this information is not available due to a lack of building plans, then they should prioritise protected staircases, above cross-corridor fire resisting doorsets, and high risk areas such as the kitchen, science labs, design technology departments, and plant rooms.

If deemed necessary due to the volume of breaches, then a full compartmentation survey should be undertaken. Obviously, with a CLASP building this will be impossible, and a greater emphasis placed on both prevention of fire and prompt evacuations.

There should also be a routine in place for regular in-house inspections of the fire resisting doorsets. These are often in extremely poor condition and the fire risk assessor should inspect a good sample of the doors, making recommendations within the report where the doors are unlikely to function as designed due to damage, missing parts, retrofitted non-fire rated hardware, or general wear and tear. Again, if the scale of faulty doorsets demands it, then a full fire door survey can be recommended.

Alarm systems

We have noted cases where automatic fire detection has been covered over, mostly due to the regularity of unwanted alarm activations. This can be due to surreptitious smoking or poor work processes in areas such as the kitchen, design technology, or science labs.

The fire risk assessor should not simply recommend removing the covers but also assist the school in preventing recurrence by recommending suitable actions. This may include the installation of different detector heads or better working practices, and routine inspections of problematic areas should also be undertaken.


It is more likely that extinguishers may be tampered with in educational premises than most other types of building. Frequent visual inspection should be undertaken above and beyond the monthly checks as recommended in BS 5306-3. Where it is impractical to keep the extinguishers in student-accessed areas due to continued misuse, then locked boxes or relocating the extinguishers to staff-only areas can be considered providing they are still accessible within the recommended travel distances contained in BS 5306-8.

Alternatively, loud audible alarms which sound when the extinguishers are removed from their designated fire points can be installed. Dry powder extinguishers should not be sited other than areas where only trained staff can access them, and recorded health and safety assessments are also recommended when dry powder extinguishers are retained inside a building.


Standards of housekeeping are often noted as being poor during fire risk assessments within educational buildings. Excessive fire loading may be present in departments such as art, drama, and design technology departments. There is often a notable conflict between wall-mounted displays of student work and fire safety. This is addressed in BB100, which states “notice boards should not be more than 3m wide, and there should be a gap between notice boards on the same wall of at least 1m”.

Storage is often at a premium within educational buildings, with unsuitable combustible items left in areas such as plant rooms and electrical cupboards or risers. These areas should be inspected during the fire risk assessment and recommendations made accordingly.

Furnishing is usually compliant with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, however damaged items including gym mats and soft furnishings are often noted as having areas of exposed foam creating a fire risk.

Emergency planning

The effectiveness of the evacuation procedures should be regularly tested by means of full unannounced fire drills; these should be completed at least once a term. Fire drills should be monitored in order to assess both the speed of the full evacuation but also, and often missed, the routes taken, and (if any) the causes of delay. If everybody uses the same main entrance/exit whilst avoiding nearer exits during the evacuation, then it can be argued that the drill was unsuccessful regardless of the evacuation time – what would happen if there was an actual fire near the main entrance?

The fire assembly points are often located in unsuitable areas such as in enclosed playgrounds or fields with no further place to evacuate to other than back via the exterior of the building which could be on fire and radiating significant temperatures. Other examples seen during our site inspections include the assembly point being positioned in the exact area the fire and rescue service would approach from, creating an obvious risk to those assembling, and potentially delaying the fire and rescue service ability to begin firefighting activities. Some schools will require crossing roads to reach an assembly point, this is acceptable as long as suitable control measures are in place to restrict and control the traffic. The location of the assembly point and any recommendations should be recorded in the fire risk assessment.

There is often no planning for staff, students, or regular visitors with any kind of impairment that would affect their ability to evacuate the building in the event of a fire. Lifts may access upper floors for day-to-day activities, but most cannot be used in a fire scenario. Many educational premises inspected have no Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) in place to address these risks. They may sometimes have considered permanently mobility impaired students, but often no consideration is given to people with hearing, visual, or cognitive impairments. Temporary conditions should also be accommodated for (e.g. broken legs) and the fire risk assessment should address this.

Staff training

High quality staff training regarding fire safety is critical not only to assist in the evacuation of the building in the event of a fire, but also with regard to fire prevention. The fire risk assessor should take steps to review the fire safety training and satisfy themselves that all staff have received fire safety induction and evacuation training on day one of joining the organisation. This training should be refreshed regularly.

Additional fire safety training should be delivered to key staff which covers all aspects of fire prevention. Any staff working with high risk activities should receive training relevant to their roles and responsibilities, such as science teachers, catering staff, design technology teachers, etc.

Any staff with responsibility for assisting in the evacuation of persons who require assistance should receive training relevant to the role, including hands-on training in the use of any evacuation aids provided.

In our experience training is often ‘ticked off’ by a short online package, and an assessor should not only review training records, but ensure they are satisfied by the content covered within the training packages.

Fire safety management

Evidence that the correct maintenance is being undertaken for all fire safety, electrical, and gas systems within the building should be seen by the fire risk assessor. They should note anything missing in their report and give clear guidance as to how often these systems should be inspected, to which British Standards, and by what type of competent contractor. Given the fact that the person on site may not have had an in-depth level of fire management training, it is important that as much guidance as possible is given into how to maintain the systems on site that are intended to keep the building, and more importantly, the occupants safe from fire.

Given the age of the buildings it is likely that regular planned and unplanned building maintenance work may also be required. Somebody on site should be trained in order to monitor any works and issue Hot Work Permits where necessary in accordance with the guidance within RC7 Risk control for hot work. If any site works are likely to penetrate elements of structure, such as running cable for example, then a policy should be implemented to ensure that all breaches are suitably fire stopped using the correct materials by somebody competent to do so. It is imperative that building management inspect areas upon completion of the works to ensure contractors have not left breaches in intended compartmentation.

Many educational establishments will seek to raise additional funds by leasing out some areas of the building to external groups. It is unusual that we see suitable consideration being given to Article 22 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (cooperation and coordination). Issues we have noted is that these groups may use upper floors with no evacuation plan, they may be in areas of the building where alternative exit routes have been locked for security purposes, or they may introduce additional fire hazards that were not considered in the fire risk assessment. All external groups should complete their own fire risk assessments and share the findings with the school, furthermore a fire safety induction should be provided for all group leaders.

Fires in schools can be devastating to not only the building itself but also to the wider community, as parents may struggle to make alternative arrangements for children who potentially have no school left to go to.

How we can help

This article covers a snapshot of some common problems within educational buildings.

The FPA has extensive experience of fire risk assessments, compartmentation surveys, and fire door surveys within educational premises.

For further support or more information, contact us here.

Fire & Risk Management is the UK’s market leading fire safety journal, published 10 times a year, and is available exclusively to FPA members in digital and print format depending on your requirements. You can find out more about our membership scheme here.

Steve Solomon is a Principal Consultant at the Fire Protection Association