The wider effects of fire on children’s education

Iain blog 1

Summer has ended and September has begun, meaning it is back-to-school week for all children across the UK. Sadly, this won’t be the case for pupils at Roding Primary School, Dagenham, as a huge fire tore through half the school’s premises, reducing classrooms, break-out-areas and equipment to ruins and preventing the school from opening. This disaster brings into sharp focus the destructive impact of fire in a school, but what are the wider effects of fire on education and how can its impact be averted?

Taking place a day before the start of term, the fire at the school’s campus on Hewett Road has caused significant disruption, with the school forced to close down on one of the most important weeks in the academic calendar.

Not only has the fire damaged the school’s building; the repercussions will be felt at a time where young students are most sensitive, particularly as adjusting to a new school routine can be a pretty daunting prospect. Whilst most students settle into school-life, young pupils at Roding Primary School have to face fire’s disruptive effects on their education.

So how does fire impact on a child’s education? According to recent statistics, there are up to 700 school fires a year in the UK; 184 fires in London schools in 2017 alone; and 47 fires in London schools this year. These figures highlight fire’s ability to cause a substantial amount of stress and disruption to children and families, with school closures and refits reducing the amount of time in the classroom.

Cost of school damage
Last month, London fire commissioner Dany Cotton stressed that every year millions of pounds of government money is wasted on repairing schools destroyed by fire. Furthermore, statistics from the Fire Protection Association indicate the average repair cost rose from £330,000 per fire in 2009 to £2.8 million in 2014.

Fire’s effect on education
Fire can have negative effects on children’s productivity levels, especially if a costly refurbishment is necessary after a large fire. Not only does a considerable refit pose huge financial cost to the affected school, it can also disturb children’s education, with low grades jeopardising a child’s career and potential. The children at the Roding School will be provided with assignments to do at home but they will miss lessons.

When they do return, temporary classrooms are by no means ideal teaching conditions and do not encourage students to feel comfortable and secure in their learning spaces. And the bigger the fire, the more costly the refit, meaning students will be forced to spend more time in these uninspiring and possibly inapt temporary classrooms. Combined with the added noise levels from construction equipment, this hardly makes for a productive learning environment for young students.

The government acknowledges that missing lessons has an impact on attainment at key stages. They track attendance and have commissioned reports to confirm it. The pursuit of parents who take children out of education for holidays is backed by government spokespeople affirming the detrimental impact on educational attainment of missing a single day of education. The impact of these fires and the disruption that they cause can reduce the results of the students, and the government’s own statistics therefore affirm this.
Surely, if government understands the importance of missing a days’ worth of education, and is willing to pursue and fine parents to ensure attendance, then more effective solutions must be implemented to quell the spread of fire?

What is the solution?

Government do understand the solution. Their own guidance, Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) highlights the importance of minimising the effects of fire on teaching, limiting the effects of interruption to operation of the school and seeking to have the school operational within 24 hours. It supports the use of property protection and an expectation of the use of sprinklers.

Roding Primary School is split between two sites: one on Cannington Road and one on Hewett Road, the campus destroyed by the fire. Cannington Road is the newer build out of the two and the one featuring sprinklers, presenting the question: would the Hewett Road site still be standing if sprinklers were installed?

Even though the government understands the impact on education, it is currently reviewing Building Bulletin 100 (BB100). It has suggested that the ‘sprinkler expectation’ will be removed. The number of new schools being erected with sprinklers installed has fallen to just 30% from a high of 70%.

The BSA wants the government to explicitly maintain and reaffirm the ‘sprinkler expectation’ in the revised BB100 so that fewer schools are damaged and destroyed by fire. This is backed by Dany Cotton and the Fire Protection Association which has called for sprinkler installation in schools. The government has the opportunity to do this when it reviews the fire safety technical guidance of the building regulations later this year. It is evident that when sprinklers do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99% of occasions across a wide range of building types, so why are they not considered a necessity in building design?

Undoubtedly, fire is a huge educational and monetary cost to schools, with the fire at Roding Primary School exemplifying the short and long term effects fire can have on a school’s function. From disruption to education, to its impact on finances, fire in schools must be avoided. Although sprinkler systems are a celebrated solution to resolve this crisis, their effectiveness has not led to successful implementation across the UK’s schools. How many more fires need to occur and children’s educations disrupted before sprinkler installation becomes a prerequisite of school design and safety?