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Fire episodes spell significant disruption for duo of schools

03 October 2023

RECENT SCHOOL fires in Hartlepool and Bolton have left a trail of damage in their wake, with these unfortunate events underscoring the distressing consequences, both in terms of disruption and financial implications, when educational institutions fall victim to outbreaks of fire.

Indeed, these incidents in August serve as a poignant reminder of the urgent need to prioritise fire safety measures, particularly considering the insufficient adoption of sprinkler systems in new school constructions.

The blaze in Hartlepool, which occurred on 12 August and is now thought to have been deliberately started, resulted in fire damage and complete smoke damage to the nursery area. The rest of the school experienced lighter smoke damage. Fire crews from Billingham and Hartlepool responded swiftly, yet the consequences have left a lasting impact. The nursery, which is responsible for nurturing and educating 30 children aged between two and four, will now require extensive reconstruction.

On 17 August, the fire in Bolton realised an even larger scale of damage to the very heart of the SS Simon and Jude CE Primary School. Around 80 firefighters and 17 fire engines from across Greater Manchester fought to contain the fire, which has damaged an area of 1,600 m2 containing the main teaching spaces, central hall and kitchens. The school plays host to over 600 pupils.  

In both cases, the return of students necessitated temporary arrangements or alternative spaces for classrooms undergoing reconstruction. The ripple effects of such incidents are far-reaching, with fires causing significant disruption even if they don’t engulf entire school premises.

This was clearly signalled by the councillor responsible for children’s services in Bolton stating that: “Our priority now as a local authority is to ensure that there’s continuity of education provision and no disruption.”

Inevitably, students are having to navigate disruption that could well span several months in terms of its duration.

Alarming statistics

“Contrary to common assumptions, schools are not always adequately equipped to withstand the range of risks they might face, be it fire, flood, theft or other unforeseen events,” explained Iain Cox, chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance. “On that note, a study conducted in 2020 by Zurich Municipal revealed some alarming statistics. Over the past five years, schools in England encountered a staggering 2,300 fires. The study projects potential disruption to education, estimating that as many as 390,000 teaching hours could be lost within a year due to significant fires, duly affecting 28,000 students.”

The monetary ramifications are equally dire, with the average repair bill for substantial fire incidents hovering around the £2.9 million mark, while certain catastrophic fires can rack up costs of circa £20 million.

Minimising the impact

There are systems that can minimise the impact of fire, among them proactive measures such as automatic sprinklers. While these systems are hailed for their effectiveness in containing fires, promoting safety and minimising damage, their implementation remains inconsistent across the UK’s educational landscape.

“Surprisingly, although mandatory in new Scottish school buildings and ‘financially encouraged’ in Wales, these systems have yet to attain universal implementation in the rest of the UK,” observed Cox. “The installation of sprinklers could potentially curtail fire outbreaks and significantly reduce the resultant damage, leading to minimal disruption to education.”

The recent fires in Hartlepool and Bolton cast a glaring spotlight on the imperative need for heightened fire safety protocols within school premises. “The question that emerges is a pressing one,” suggested Cox. “How many more incidents of this nature, each of them exacerbating the disruption posed to children’s education, need to occur before the installation of sprinklers becomes an essential prerequisite in school design?”

As Cox rightly explained, the repercussions of missed school days extend far beyond the academic realm, affecting children’s overall life prospects. “It’s high time that collective action is taken to safeguard our educational institutions against the devastating impact of fires, in turn ensuring that the pursuit of knowledge remains unhampered by preventable incidents.”