Less than two weeks into the new school term in the UK and a primary school in Wiltshire, England has suffered a major school fire. Following 18 months of pandemic disruption, students at the school near Pewsey will once again face a period of uncertainty following the blaze, which required 70 firefighters to bring under control.
The fire at Woodborough Church of England Primary School on 17 September 2021 required 10 crews and an aerial platform from the Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service. Whilst the Fire and Rescue service brought the incident under control there was extensive damage to two classrooms and a staff room in the Victorian part of the school. The school had no sprinklers fitted and the impact will be felt by 160 pupils who will have to be temporarily displaced.
Whilst the cause of the fire is believed to have started in the roof area, Ben Ansell, Dorset and Wiltshire’s Chief Fire Officer is calling on the government to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all new-build and refurbished schools: ‘As a service, we will continue to promote the installation of sprinklers in new and refurbished school buildings, and I know our fire safety team will be working with the management of Woodborough School to explore all available options for keeping the site safe from fire in the future.’
The government acknowledges that missing lessons has an impact on attainment at key stages but is proposing that the requirement for automatic sprinkler protection is removed from its BB100 design guide for most new schools. The impact of school fires such as this and the disruption that they cause can reduce the results of the students, therefore the government’s own statistics affirm this.
The blaze in Woodborough comes less than a year after three primary school fires in Derbyshire, which are resulting in rebuild costs of £27 million, including the fire service’s costs along with temporary accommodation and alternative travel. None of these schools were sprinkler protected, which is estimated at between 2–3% of the build costs. It’s a small price to pay to save a vital community building and to protect our children’s continuing education.
Often people miss the point that fires do not have to damage an entire school to cause disruption. It is all about educational space, and the loss of two classrooms in this school cannot be made up by using alternative space – there just isn’t enough capacity within a school. The damage to the remainder of the school from such a significant fire means it will remain out of action for a prolonged period of time. Some may assume that schools are designed to withstand the risks they will be exposed to whether through fire, flood, theft, earthquake or storm, etc. Too often a building is conceived without due consideration as to the impact of those risks during its lifespan.
According to a 2020 study by Zurich Municipal,1 education insurer for half of the schools and universities in the UK, schools in England have been hit by 2,300 fires in the past five years. It estimates that 390,000 teaching hours could be lost in the next year as a result of large fires, causing disruption for 28,000 children.
When you consider the huge costs associated with school fires such as rebuilding, temporary relocation, loss of equipment and the impact on pupils’ academic work, why are we not learning the lesson about fires in schools whilst continuing to build them without key resilience measures such as sprinkler systems?
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