Putting out the fire risk in schools

  • Fire incidents pose a significant threat to schools, with a number of factors putting schools at heightened risk
  • However, a robust fire risk assessment can reduce the disruption a fire can cause
  • The true impact of a fire or arson attack cannot be underestimated, even at the best-managed school

It should come as no surprise that education leaders have long viewed fire incidents as a significant threat to their institutions and the wellbeing of students and staff.

Even a fire that does not pose a serious threat to staff and students can still destroy facilities and equipment, resulting in a long period of closure and forcing the institution to identify and use alternative premises.

This often results in disruption for students and there can be significant costs related to quickly trying to re-house schools in what are often less than ideal facilities.

Case Study: Magdalen College School, Oxford

The damage caused by fires was brought sharply into focus this summer following a fire at the historic Magdalen College School, founded in 1480.

Early reports suggested that the source of the fire was an electrical appliance, but so far this remains unexplained. The fire affected expensive sport and fitness equipment and resulted in significant damage to the sports hall and changing room block, with the covering to the domed sports hall roof needing to be stripped to replace smoke-contaminated insulation.

In addition to the damage from the flames, the sports hall and changing rooms also sustained significant smoke damage, and heating and electrical systems will need to be replaced.

“Premiums are paid year-on-year with the fervent wish that one will never have to make a claim, but, when a crisis occurs, the insurer’s real job begins in earnest,” says Andy Smyth, Bursar and Clerk to the Governors at Magdalen College.

A dedicated team from Zurich Insurance is currently working with the school to minimise the disruption to students as the necessary repair work is carried out.

“We have been extremely impressed with the broad range of expertise that has been brought to the table and the way in which everyone has pulled together on behalf of the school,” says Smyth.

Fire detection and safety

Whilst most institutions take the right precautions and are well prepared, building and maintenance professionals will be all too aware that the scale of the threat from fire means that schools should always be vigilant and go above and beyond to ‘put out’ the fire risk.

Expert guidance on fire detection and safety is key – for more information read our article ‘Protecting your school from getting burnt’.

Key factors contributing to increased fire risk

There are a number of factors that put schools at heightened risk of fire.

Firstly, many of the UK’s educational institutions are housed in old or ageing buildings. All too often, the techniques and materials used to construct these buildings are not up to today’s stringent fire safety standards. This is especially true when it comes to old electrical systems, which may not have been kept up-to-date as standards improved.

Rooms and premises with dangerous or sensitive substances can also put schools at risk if they are not properly managed. Science labs, for instance, pose a particular problem when they are put in buildings that may have not been designed for that purpose.

Premiums are paid year-on-year with the fervent wish that one will never have to make a claim, but, when a crisis occurs, the insurer’s real job begins in earnest,”
Andy Smyth, Bursar and Clerk to the Governors at Magdalen College

Behavioural factors are also important to consider when it comes to assessing fire risk in schools. For example smoking in non-designated areas of the premises is a particular threat. Moreover, schools should be alert to the risk of arson attacks, especially during quieter periods such as holidays and weekends. It is vital that schools understand such risks and take appropriate action now.

Fire risk assessments

Taking fire risk seriously doesn’t just make common sense; it is also a legal requirement.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in England and Wales requires all schools to complete fire risk assessments to safeguard students and staff. They might seem laborious, but if a fire risk assessment is done well, it will go a long way to reducing the risk of a fire that could otherwise cause significant disruption or even fatalities.

In this respect, it is key that a school’s risk assessment is as robust as possible and that efforts are made to quickly implement any recommendations arising from it. It is also good practice to make sure assessments are carried out regularly, and that they are updated to reflect any changes made to the building.

Changes that would warrant a reassessment include replacement of any electrical installations and extensions to existing buildings. Building and maintenance professionals should also consider the value of specialist support to evaluate such changes. This way they can be reassured that any new risks are managed appropriately and are fully in line with industry standards.

Risk cannot be underestimated

Whilst the vast majority of institutions will have the right measures in place to protect students, staff and premises, instances such as the fire at Magdalen College School show that the true impact of a fire or arson attack cannot be underestimated, even at the best-managed schools.

If schools are to ‘put out’ the fire threat, it is crucial they keep risk assessments under constant review and spend time and effort plugging any gaps, bringing in specialist advice when needed.


Find out more and access helpful guides and insight with our new Fire Risk Resource.