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“Devastating” fire disrupts education at Somerset infant school

21 August 2023

A HEADTEACHER was said to be “devastated” when her infant school was partially destroyed by a fire in Somerset. The May Bank Holiday fire at Yatton Infant School exerted a huge impact on the community and is a painful reminder of the damage, disruption and costs incurred when educational buildings are subject to fire.

The fire on 31 May required six crews and 36 firefighters from the Avon Fire and Rescue Service to attend. While the Fire and Rescue Service brought the fire under control, there was extensive damage to six classrooms, rendering half of its facilities non-functional, in turn posing significant challenges to the learning environment. No sprinkler systems were fitted at the school.

The impact was felt by at least 100 of the 300 pupils who were displaced to other local schools in Yatton and Congresbury for the remainder of the summer term. When the children return after the summer holiday, temporary or further alternative spaces will be needed for the classrooms requiring reconstruction.

The Government recognises the profound impact of missing lessons on students' attainment at key stages. The impact of school fires such as this and the disruption that they cause can hinder students’ academic results. The Government’s own statistics support this assertion.

Significant disruption

Fires do not necessarily need to damage an entire school to cause significant disruption. A fire that damages any educational space has an impact. The loss of six classrooms in this school cannot be made up by using alternative space. There is simply not that kind of capacity within the school.

The damage to the remainder of the school from such a significant fire means that it will have to cope with work to remediate the fire damage. Pupils will need to be educated beside what will amount to a construction site. As a result, the disruption will continue for many months to come.

“Some may assume that schools are designed to withstand the risks to which they will be exposed,” asserted Iain Cox, chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, “whether that risk is posed by fire, flooding, theft or storms, etc. Too often, though, buildings are conceived with limited consideration as to the impact of those risks over the lifetime of the structure.”

Zurich Municipal study

According to a 2020 study conducted by Zurich Municipal, the insurer for 50% of the schools and universities across the UK, schools in England have been hit by 2,300 fires in the past five years. The insurer estimates that 390,000 teaching hours could be lost in the next 12 months as a result of large fires, causing disruption for 28,000 pupils. The average repair bill for large fires alone is £2.9 million, while certain fire incidents can incur costs as high as £20 million.

“From disruption to education through to its repercussions on finances and the local community, fires in schools must be avoided,” affirmed Cox. “Although sprinkler systems are a celebrated solution to contain such events and are mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and encouraged in Wales through central funding, their effectiveness has not led to successful implementation across all UK schools. Sprinklers would help to contain fires and limit the potential damage resulting from them, meaning the interruption to education would be minimised.”

Stark reminder

The damage and disruption caused by the blaze in Yatton serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of fire safety in schools. “The question we must ask ourselves,” concluded Cox, “is how many more such fires and disruptions to children's education need to occur before sprinkler installation becomes an essential prerequisite of school design and safety?”

From the perspective of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, each additional day missed due to fire-related incidents harms not only academic attainment, but also their life chances. “With fewer than one-in-ten new schools having been built with a sprinkler system installed,” added Cox, “it’s time we changed that particular situation.”