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Overlooking School Sprinkler Systems – The High Price Of Short-Term Thinking

School sprinkler systems are still relatively rare. Fewer than one-in-six new schools have been built with a sprinkler system installed yet the fire incident statistics for England in primary/secondary and other educational establishments has seen a rise from 250 in 2020/21 to 341 in 2021/22.  

This begs the question as to why are we not investing appropriately in our school estate and leaving our schools vulnerable to fire and its impact?

The price of underinvestment in school buildings was brought to bear in early September with the news that 174 schools were either forced to close or install temporary classrooms due to the presence of crumbling reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

Whilst the safety of students is paramount, it has led to 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 fire can also have an impact on a child’s education.

sprinklers in schools
Fewer than 1 in 6 new schools have been built with sprinkler systems. Credit: iStock.com

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

On August 17th, 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 destroyed by fire. The school has over 600 pupils.    

When students returned to classes after 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 do not engulf entire school premises. The short time frame meant students had to navigate prolonged disruptions potentially spanning months.  

An event that did not attract as much attention was a fire that broke out at the unsprinklered Ash Green Primary School in Mixenden on February 1st 2022. Despite 10 fire crews responding, the blaze destroyed a quarter of the key stage two block, displacing upper school pupils to temporary classrooms. The estimated £4.5 million rebuild has just started and is noted to take until close to 2025 to complete. 

It is worth stressing that the fire at Ash Green Primary was not about the destruction of the whole school. Whilst such events garner the headlines fires that cause damage to two or three education spaces or classrooms can really have an impact.

Put simply, a school just runs out of space to relocate students in such an incident, and it leads to the work of an entire school/department and the delivery of education being hampered. In the case of Ash Green, it has led to the revamp of the school costing millions of pounds funded by Government and ultimately taxpayers. 

A thousand school children displaced

Whilst many may be struck by the financial consequences the key item is that across these three events is that over 1,100 pupils were displaced, causing weeks of disrupted lessons and childcare adjustments for parents. That impact continued until they found temporary accommodation but that was not always in the same place as the original school. The timeline for rebuilding a school is not short, and can stretch to two to three years.

Government is insistent that even a week’s interruption to their education would have a negative impact on a child’s attainment.  Their stance on this matter is so resolute that they impose a daily fine of £60 on parents for taking their children out of school. Fires such as those described have an even greater impact and it’s a similar level of disruption to the schools that were impacted by RAAC.

A study conducted in 2020 by Zurich Municipal revealed 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, affecting 28,000 students. The monetary ramifications are equally dire, with the average repair bill for substantial fire incidents hovering around £2.9 million, while certain catastrophic fires can rack up costs of up to £20 million.

Measures such as sprinklers drastically reduce the amount of damage done when there is a fire, and enable schools to get up-and-running quickly, reducing the cost, both economically and socially, to the public. Schools have always been a vital part of the community for events, meetings, and activities. These can also continue with minimal interruption ensuring the continuity of service to the community.

Many educational facilities are built at low cost without considering 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.

Perhaps if we invested appropriately in quality school infrastructure from the outset, prioritising key resilience measures like sprinklers, these crises could have been averted or minimised. It seems we put off costs in the short-term only to pay an even higher price further down the road. 

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

By Thomas Roche – Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

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