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High price to pay for short-term thinking in school infrastructure

04 November 2023

THE HIGH price of underinvestment in school buildings was brought to bear in early September, writes Tom Roche, with the news that 174 schools were either forced to close or otherwise install temporary classrooms due to the presence of crumbling Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC).

While the safety of students is, of course, paramount, the prevailing situation has led to significant disruption and financial implications with pandemic-style remote learning and temporary classrooms having become the order of the day. Structurally unsound schools leading to disruption is clearly a significant challenge, but there needs to be recognition that outbreaks of fire can also have an impact on the education of tomorrow’s generation.

Fewer than one-in-six new schools have been constructed with a sprinkler system installed, yet the fire incident statistics for England in primary/secondary and other educational establishments have witnessed a rise from 250 in 2020-2021 to 341 in 2021-2022. This begs the question: ‘Why are we not investing appropriately in our school estate and instead leaving these schools vulnerable to fire and its impact?’

Damage and disruption

In August, two significant school fires realised extensive damage and disruption. On 12 August, a nursery in Hartlepool suffered 10% fire damage and complete smoke damage, while the remainder of the school premises experienced lighter smoke damage.

Only five days later, a fire in Bolton caused even more damage to the very heart of the SS Simon and Jude CE Primary School, with the main teaching spaces, central hall and kitchens completely destroyed. Bear in mind that this school plays host to upwards of 600 pupils. When the children returned at the end of the summer holiday, temporary arrangements were needed for classrooms undergoing reconstruction.

The ripple effects of such incidents are far-reaching, with fires causing significant disruption even if they don’t happen to engulf entire school premises. The short space of time between the fire and the beginning of term meant that students had to navigate prolonged disruptions potentially spanning many months.

An event that didn’t attract as much attention was the fire that broke out at the unsprinklered Ash Green Primary School in Mixenden on 1 February last year. Despite ten fire crews responding, the blaze destroyed a quarter of the key Stage Two block, in turn displacing upper school pupils to temporary classrooms. The estimated £4.5 million rebuild process has just begun and estimates suggest that it will not be completed until close to 2025.

It's worth stressing that the fire at Ash Green Primary School was not about the destruction of the whole school. While such events garner the headlines, fires that cause damage to two or three education spaces or classrooms can really exert a major impact. Put simply, a school just runs out of space to relocate students in the wake of such an incident. This leads to the work of an entire school/department and the delivery of education being severely hampered.

In the case of Ash Green Primary School, it has led to the revamp of the school costing millions of pounds funded by Government and, ultimately, taxpayers.

Pupils displaced

While many readers of Fire Safety Matters will be struck by the financial consequences realised by such episodes, the key truism to note is that, across these three events, over 1,100 pupils were displaced, duly leading to weeks of disrupted lessons and necessary childcare adjustments for parents.

This impact continued until temporary accommodation was found. The latter, however, wasn’t always in the same place as the original school. The timeline for rebuilding a school is never short and can often stretch from two to three years.

Government is insistent that even a week’s interruption to their education would exert a negative impact on a child’s attainment. In fact, Westminster’s stance on this matter is so resolute a daily fine of £60 is imposed on parents for taking their children out of school.

Fires such as those described have an even greater impact. It’s a similar level of disruption, in fact, to that experienced by those schools impacted due to the ongoing RAAC scenario.

A study conducted back in 2020 by insurer Zurich Municipal revealed alarming statistics. Over the prior 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 affecting some 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.

Fire protection measures

Fire protection measures such as sprinkler systems drastically reduce the amount of damage wrought when there’s a fire outbreak and enable schools to be back up-and-running pretty quickly, reducing the cost – both in the economic and social senses – to the public.

Schools have always been a vital part of the local community for running events, meetings and activities such as serving as Polling Stations during local and national elections. Such uses can continue with minimal interruption, thereby ensuring the continuity of service to the community.

Many educational facilities are built at low cost without consideration being given to long-term resilience or upkeep. When disaster strikes, the true costs emerge. Entire school communities suffer, with hundreds of students displaced and lesson plans upended, sometimes for years to come.

If we invested appropriately in quality school infrastructure from the outset, prioritising key resilience measures like sprinkler systems as part of the mix, these crises could be averted or at least minimised. It seems that we put off costs in the short-term only to pay an even higher price further down the line.

Whether the wave of school closures is a result of fire or RAAC, the question remains: ‘Are we properly investing in our schools for the long haul or merely building as cost-effectively as possible in the hope of surviving the next 30 years without incident?’

Tom Roche is Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance