College with ‘failed’ Grenfell-style cladding to remain open for 16 to 18-year-old residents despite Bolton fire

This evening the Department for Education (DfE) has said there remains “no immediate safety concerns” at a college halls of residence with cladding that has failed a safety test, despite a university student halls catching fire.

It is understood that around 100 people were evacuated and two people suffered minor injuries at a Bolton University halls of residence last night.

An investigation by FE Week in October revealed Highbury College, in Portsmouth, has requested up to £5m in financial support from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to replace Grenfell-style cladding that had ‘failed’ a safety test.

The DfE spokesperson also said tonight that they are still considering the funding application and a decision “will be made in due course.”

A spokesperson for Highbury College confirmed The Tower, which is clad in the same aluminium composite material as the Grenfell Tower which caught fire in June 2017, has had resident students under 18-years-old since September 2016.

Students under 18-years-old in onsite residential accommodation would be in-scope for an Ofsted social care inspection.

But when FE Week asked Ofsted last month why they had not inspected the residential provision at The Tower Ofsted said the ESFA had not made them aware of it.

Highbury College also blamed the ESFA for not telling Ofsted that they had resident students under 18-years-old on the premises, because they claim they had “declared in the college Individual Learner Record from 2016/17 onwards and as such would have been accessible to the ESFA.”

The college had also been telling parents that the Tower was regulated by Ofsted.

And with Ofsted not being made aware, the college has saved around £5,000 over the past three years in what the inspectorate calls an “annual routine fee, set in regulations by the DfE, for the inspection of the college’s residential provision.”

This afternoon Ofsted told FE Week that the DfE had still not asked them to undertake an inspection of the residential provision at The Tower.

A spokesperson said: “We inspect residential provision in colleges at the request of DfE. When they inform us that a college has residential provision, we will inspect it within the timescale in our policy. But, if they want us to go in sooner, they can ask us.”

The fire at Bolton University halls, which is understood to have involved a different type of cladding, prompted the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, to write “to all university vice chancellors” this afternoon.

Williamson tweeted that he had asked them to “review fire safety procedures and safeguards across residential, teaching & research accommodation.” And “report back to me as swiftly as possible.”