School buildings in England at extraordinarily high risk of fire

An extensive new study of English schools suggests they face twice the fire risk of other buildings. It also reveals that firefighters have been called to nearly 2,000 school blazes in the last three years.

Insurer Zurich Municipal's analysis of data on 26,800 primary and secondary schools shows the average fire risk is almost double that of non-residential buildings; that two thirds lack adequate fixed fire protection measures; and that a quarter are have poor fire detection strategies in place.

Data scientists analysed 33,000 fires from the last six years to identify factors that increase the likelihood of a blaze from which they produced a fire risk score. These factors include listed status, presence of cooking equipment and size of the building itself. Of the 2,000 school blazes firefighters have tackled in the last three years, malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, arson and kitchen blazes were among the leading causes.

Larger fires in schools cost on average £2.8m to repair and in some cases over £20m -- not to mention the unacceptable risks posed to children. Larger, older schools, including those with a canteen, and secondary schools (which have more complex and dangerous equipment) are particularly at risk. A correlation between poor OFSTED ratings and greater risk of fire was also identified in the analysis.

Tilden Watson, Zurich Municipal’s head of education, said: “An alarming number of school buildings pose a high fire risk - yet many are poorly protected against a potential blaze. Unless Ministers bring England into line with other parts of the UK, where sprinklers are mandatory, large fires will continue to blight schools. This is harming children’s education and putting lives at risk.

“Burnt out schools and classrooms cause major disruption to children’s education, with repairs leading to months or even years of upheaval. They also result in the loss of spaces which local communities rely on out of school hours. As well as protecting pupils, sprinklers drastically reduce the extent of damage when there is a blaze, often confining the fire to a single room. This gets children back into schools and classrooms quicker as well as saving taxpayers’ money.

“Countless young people have already had their schooling upended by the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot allow school fires to further disrupt young people’s education, and jeopardise their futures.”

Sprinklers are fitted in fewer than one in six new schools, and the findings of this study have led Zurich to launch a parliamentary petition (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/549558) to urge MPs to change the law on sprinklers in schools. Whilst sprinklers are compulsory in all new or major refurbished school buildings in Scotland and Wales this is not the case in England.

Nick Coombe, protection vice-chair and Building Safety Programme Lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council, said: “The case for sprinklers is compelling. Of almost 1,000 fires over five years in buildings where sprinklers were fitted, our research found they controlled or extinguished blazes in 99% of cases. We want to see a greater inclusion of Automatic Fire Suppression Systems, including sprinklers, across the built environment. Sprinklers can dramatically reduce fire damage, making the reopening of a school much easier. This not only minimises the disruption to a pupil’s education, but also the impact on their family, the community and the wider education establishment.”

According to Zurich’s analysis, seven million (7,036,327) primary and secondary school children are taught in the 58% of buildings that are a high fire risk.

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