College with ‘failed’ Grenfell-style cladding starts moving students out

A college has begun moving classes and residents out of their tower block as they prepare for a multi-million pound renovation to replace Grenfell-style cladding that failed a fire safety test.

Work to remove non-compliant panelling at Highbury College is planned to get underway in the spring and is anticipated to take up to 12 months.

It remains unclear whether the Department for Education has signed-off on the college’s application for financial support to fund the project. A DfE spokesperson said the outcome would be revealed in “due course”.

There are 18 students currently housed in the 10-storey block in Portsmouth, eleven of whom are aged under 18. They will have to move before it closes on 31 January.

Students have been offered alternative living arrangements for the rest of the academic year, including local host family accommodation.

Some college lessons are also taught in the tower. These will be moved to the main campus building.

An investigation by FE Week in October revealed that Highbury had requested up to £5 million from the government to replace Aluminium Composite Material cladding, the type used on the Grenfell Tower, which according to ECD Architects “failed” a safety test.

Concerns were heightened in November when around 100 people were evacuated and two people reportedly suffered minor injuries at a Bolton University halls of residence that caught fire.

Highbury’s halls were constructed in the 1970s and re-clad in 2001. They had not been inspected by Ofsted under the watchdog’s social care common inspection framework until November 2019.

Its first Ofsted report was published on Friday. It found that the halls “require improvement to be good” under the judgement which scrutinised “how well young people are helped and protected”.

The report noted the cladding replacement project and said that “specific plans are in place and additional measures have been applied to address the concerns in the meantime”.

These included additional staffing at night and “ensuring that every student is aware of what to do in the event of the need to evacuate the building”.

Regular checks of the building and fire systems as well as fire drills “ensure that awareness is maintained” and “importantly, managers have sought advice and checks from the local Fire Rescue Service to ensure that the measures in place are likely to be effective”.

The top five floors of Highbury’s 10-storey tower contain 75 bedrooms, according to the college’s website, and “students aged under 18 years of age are accommodated within the on-site Tower Hall of Residence” at a cost of £120 per week.

A statement from the college said the renovation project includes “upgrading the external cladding system and the replacement of all external doors and windows with new energy efficient models designed to reduce utility costs and background noise”.

“In order to provide a peaceful and consistent living, learning and working environment for students and staff, the tower teaching and accommodation facilities will be relocated prior to the renovation works commencing,” it continued.

“This will also ensure students are not put under additional pressure during the summer exam periods.

“To minimise the disruption to students and staff, lessons currently located in the tower will be moved to the main campus building. The phased relocation of lessons is expected to take eight to 10 weeks.”

The statement added that in the short to medium term, there is “expected to be minimal disruption” to the facilities and services located on the ground floor, which includes the college’s Honeypot Nursery and its Reprographic Print Centre and will remain open as usual.

Portsmouth City Council gave planning consent for the new cladding and windows in September.