Delivering education after a school fire

  • Fire is one of the most significant risks facing schools and academies, and the human cost can be significant
  • From challenges finding alternative classrooms, to lost coursework and added exam stress, fires can cause massive disruption for staff, students and the wider school community
  • We explore the major fire risks facing schools, what this means for the delivery of education, and what organisations can do to mitigate the risks

There are more than 1,000 fires on school premises every year, and with large claims costing an average of £2.8m, fire is one of the most prevalent and destructive risks facing schools and academies.

Beyond the obvious financial implications, the human cost can be enormous – interrupting and potentially even damaging a child’s education (see our latest whitepaper, The Human impact of fire). Here, we look at why schools are so susceptible to fire, the effect major fires can have on education, and what can be done to mitigate the risk.

What are the leading causes of school fires?

Arson and wilful fire-raising (see boxout) remain the most common causes of fire in the UK, and are often the most damaging. According to the National Fire Chiefs Council, arson accounted for 50.5% of all fires attended by fire and rescue services in the UK in 2017/18.

While no organisations are immune, schools can be at particular risk, with figures from the Arson Prevention Forum showing that arson accounts for 80% of all serious fires in schools. Experience shows that schools are typically most vulnerable to arson during the holidays.

Hot works and modern methods of construction are also leading factors in many fires, particularly over the summer holidays, when maintenance, renovation and building work is likely to be taking place.

The challenge of finding alternative accommodation

After a major school fire, it can often take time to find the alternative accommodation required to resume education. While Zurich is often able to provide temporary buildings on-site, in other instances – typically when space is limited – off-site accommodation needs to be found. This is typically covered within the insurance policy, however the resulting delay can mean missed lessons, and will often increase stress for pupils and teaching and management staff alike.

Once alternative classrooms are found, the logistics of getting children and staff to a new site can be challenging. Often, this will involve transporting pupils to a site further away, which not only affects children – who will have to get up earlier – but also parents, who may have to arrange alternative accommodation.

Fires can occur at any time, but those in the lead up to the exam season can be particularly traumatic. Teaching materials can be replaced, but it is more difficult to replace coursework. While extensions may be granted, the stress of losing coursework could influence exam performance, or even lead to stress-related illness. In addition, pupils may suffer the loss of personal possessions stored in lockers or classrooms.

Fires can also add to the pressure and demands on staff. In the social media age, schools are likely to receive a deluge of enquiries following a major fire, and the time spent handling these enquiries could add to stress and further compromise recovery.

Preparation is key to managing fire risk

To minimise damage and disruption in the event of a major fire, being prepared is essential. It is important to develop and regularly update business continuity plans, clearly define roles and responsibilities, and assess in advance what the key risks and threats are. It is also vital to test continuity plans across a wide range of fire scenarios. Sharing continuity plans with Zurich Municipal in advance will also help to speed up recovery.

Our recent research suggests that schools are not always doing enough to reduce the risk of fires occurring in the first place, with two-thirds of schools in England equipped with poor fire protection systems.

Fire safety and building regulations and standards provide a good starting point, but to reduce the human impact of fire and minimise disruption to education, these should be treated as the bare minimum requirement.

How Zurich Municipal can help schools to manage fire risk

Our recent white paper, Fire safety: addressing risk improvement actions, offers a wealth of guidance on how schools can improve their management of fire risk – from arson prevention to hot works safety.

We have also just published a new report, exploring The human impact of fire and how to mitigate it.