Two thirds of schools in England poorly managed for fire protection

  • Two-thirds (67%) of English schools are rated as ‘poor’ for fire protection systems, with only one in 20 rated ‘excellent’
  • Meanwhile almost a third (29%) of schools in Scotland are rated ‘excellent’
  • Out of 673 schools built and open in the UK since 2011, only 15% were fitted with sprinkler systems
  • Zurich Municipal calls on the Government for urgent change in regulation to make the installation of sprinklers in all new and major refurbished schools in England mandatory

Two-thirds of schools in England are not properly prepared for a fire, according to research by Zurich Municipal, the leading insurer of schools and universities in the UK.

Zurich’s analysis of 1,000 site surveys across UK shows that there is a huge discrepancy between fire risk management in schools across England and Scotland, with the southern region the least safe for pupils.

In Scotland, where sprinkler systems are legally required in all new and major refurbished schools, almost three in 10 (29%) of Scottish schools are rated ‘excellent’ for fixed fire protection systems, in stark contrast to English schools where only one in 20 (5%) achieved the same rating.

According to the study, the five biggest fire risks include: lack of fixed fire protection including sprinklers, building combustibility and modern construction methods, fire detection, arson, as well as housekeeping and smoking controls.

Children and communities in the West Midlands, Wales, South East, Greater London and South West are at the highest risk of major fire incidents, which can disrupt not only their education, but also any community and sports activities that school premises may be used for after hours. Schools in Scotland, East Midlands, North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humberside achieved the most positive scores for fire detection and protection risk management practices, making them the safest regions in the UK.

With more than 1,000 fires in school premises every year, which cost on average £2.8 million for the larger incidents, Zurich Municipal calls for action to prevent needless disruption to the educational continuity of children. Whilst there were no fatalities from school fires in the eight years up to 2017/18, there were 244 casualties, according to official figures*. Figures also show that 673 schools have been built and open in the UK since 2011 and just 15% were fitted with sprinkler systems.

In August 2019, Zurich Municipal issued a letter to the Department for Education calling on the Government to take urgent action to protect school premises and communities by updating the relevant building regulations and building bulletin standards to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all new and major refurbished schools in the UK. This legislation has already passed in Scotland. The letter was signed by industry bodies such as; Association of British Insurers, Fire Protection Association, National Education Union, National Fire Chiefs’ Council and many others.

Tilden Watson, Head of Education at Zurich Municipal, said: “A change in Government legislation to make sprinklers in schools mandatory not only protects children while they are in school, it often contains the fire to the room it starts in when it happens out of school hours. Not only does this minimise the level of damage caused, it also negates the aftermath which often leads to months or even years of disruption for children’s education while the school is repaired. Schools are not just attended by children, they are community hubs which are used outside of school hours by a range of societies and organisations. The loss of these spaces can have significant impacts on local communities lacking accommodation for night classes and local events whilst the school also loses the rental income.

“Preventative action and the mandatory installation of sprinklers as well as the removal of combustible materials could eliminate the impact of loss and disruption to the community, and significantly reduce the cost to the tax payer for repairs. We urge the Government to regulate and provide improved guidance which clearly requires the mandatory implementation of sprinklers in all new build and major refurbished schools.”

Andy Dark, Fire Brigades Union assistant general secretary, commented: “We’ve made it clear in the past that newly built schools and other high-risk buildings should have sprinkler systems and we fully support Zurich Municipal’s call on the Government to change the law to make them mandatory. Ideally, sprinklers would be fitted in all schools of whatever age and size. Sprinklers can assist in limiting the spread of fire, the damage it will cause and giving occupants additional time to escape, as well as reducing the risks faced by firefighters attending the incident.

“After a decade of austerity, the fire and rescue service is hanging by a thread. With slowing response times and massive cuts to firefighter jobs, a sprinkler system could make the crucial difference, saving a school from destruction in a fire. Building schools on the cheap is counterproductive – and the cost could be the complete disruption of our children’s education. We need to invest in schools as a part of investing in our future.”