How to combat Arson in Schools

Arson in schools is a major concern and the persons best able to resolve the problem are those within the schooling profession. School governors, head teachers, school premises managers, LEAs and local authority risk managers are the people who can solve the problem. The following information is extracted from a leaflet from The Arson Prevention Bureau.

It is not only the financial loss you should consider, there is also the loss of precious resources. For example consider arson at a school in the North West causing a loss of £1.2 million.

The fire was discovered at 00.39hrs. The block, which was almost completely destroyed, housed 16 teaching rooms, the library, main office, pastoral offices, the head and deputy offices and the staff room. The history and geography departments were completely wiped out whilst the modern languages, mathematics, English, special educational needs and RE departments lost many resources.

The trauma and devastation was summed up by the head teacher,

” The first reaction is shock and numbness, followed by total disbelief and then realisation that 25 years of resources had gone. All the carefully collected photographs, booklets and artefacts from all over Europe had gone, all the paperwork for the administration of public examinations had gone, and all the school text books and personal belongings had gone.”

The timing of the fire was particularly unfortunate, since Year 9 SATS were to be held later in the week and GCSE examinations were due to begin within a month. Heads of subjects had to contact Examination Boards to discuss what arrangements could be made for loss of coursework and pupils revision material.

The burnt out classrooms were replaced by mobile rooms and the school had a derelict building at its centre for over a year; this became a demolition site and is now a building site. These circumstances are obviously not conducive to marketing the school and pupil recruitment and the sixth form suffered in particular. This had a substantial effect on the school budget resulting in a large deficit.


How to combat Arson in Schools is addressed primarily by school governors, head teachers, school premises managers, LEAs and local authority risk managers. It aims to alert those responsible for school premises to the continuing dangers of arson attacks on schools and suggests means by which such potential incidents can be reduced. School fires, accidental as well as malicious, are all too common. Local authority fire brigades attended many school fires of which 70% were thought to have been started deliberately. Evidence from research carried out by the Arson Prevention Bureau suggests that this is not the full picture as fire brigades are not always called to fires, particularly if they self-extinguish or are put-out by staff.

Zurich Municipal, the principal insurer for schools, considers the cost of school fires as far too high and 75% is attributed to arson. Some fires result in losses in excess of £1 million. Over and above these direct costs are the consequential losses, such as the need to find alternative temporary accommodation, or the loss of irreplaceable records, teaching notes, and coursework for external examinations and tests. In addition to the financial consequences, large fires can impact on morale and the performance of schools for many years.

Every fire in a school has the potential to cause considerable damage and disruption, and can also threaten the lives of children, school staff and others who may be on the premises, including those attending evening classes. Those who have experienced a serious fire at their school have difficulty in forgetting the pain and despair, caused by the incident. The majority of fires are at night or when the school is closed during holiday periods and casualties are rare. Sadly, this cannot be taken for granted. In 1990, 3 young boys were killed in a school shed fire in Essex.

Nature of the Problem – Who are the arsonists?

Arson is committed for a variety of reasons and there are many kinds of arsonist. Arsonists may not be strangers to the school but children. Adolescents feature prominently. Fires in schools are most likely to be started by pupils, ex-pupils or their friends, or others with knowledge of the school. Of the 4600 individuals prosecuted, cautioned or found guilty each year for arson offences, almost half are aged from 10 to 16.

The Arson Prevention Bureau’s research shows that the great majority of malicious fires take place outside school hours with a peak at around 11pm. Many fires are started outside school buildings often with material found easily to hand (such as in bins or rubbish skips). The use of an accelerant, such as petrol, is comparatively rare.

Assessing a school’s vulnerability to arson attack

In order to prevent an arson attack on a school the management must first assess vulnerability of their premises to attack. With limited resources available for improvement work, the arson assessment will allow schools to rank their findings in a priority order and to concentrate their efforts and resources where they are most needed. To aid schools, assessment sheets have been compiled and is shown below. Often the assessment is more effective if carried out with the assistance of specialists within the LEA or using outside agencies, such as the Fire Service or an Insurance Company. It is essential to develop site-specific proposals and ensure that the measures taken are commensurate with the risk.

This Questionnaire will assist in completing the arson assessment.

Developing an action plan against arson

Once an arson assessment has been carried out, the next priority is to address the weaknesses identified. These may not all require significant financial resources but may involve housekeeping or staff / student training. Management is a vital ingredient of a safety policy.

Five Point Action Plan

The prevention of arson attacks falls into a logical process:

  • Deter unauthorised entry onto the site
  • Prevent unauthorised entry into the building
  • Reduce the opportunity for an offender to start a fire
  • Reduce the scope for potential fire damage
  • Reduce subsequent losses and disruption from a fire by preparing a disaster recovery plan

Each of the above aspects are addressed below.

1. Deter unauthorised entry onto the site

  • Discourage unauthorised entry onto the site by the use of signs and by delineating the boundary of the premises by use of a robust fence or hedge. This action makes it clear to would-be intruders and trespassers that they are on private property and for neighbours to see clearly that people are within the site boundaries. Consideration should be given to the type of fence or hedge used so that it does not obscure the vision of passers-by and neighbours. If a hedge is decided upon, consider berberis, hawthorne or other similar shrubs as they in themselves are a deterrent. It may also be necessary to consider palisade security fencing for part of, or the whole site, if unauthorised intrusion is a major problem.
  • Most trespass and associated vandalism occurs out-of-school hours and often under cover of darkness. Consequently, good lighting is recommended. LED flood lights should be used on elevations which are overlooked and motion detection sensors are ideal for elevations which are not overlooked. However, lighting on elevations which are not overlooked or in recesses can attract unwanted visitors or provide intruders with working light and CCTV surveillance needs to be considered. Bespoke advice on security lighting can be obtained from local crime prevention officers.
  • The presence of school staff living on site is obviously a high deterrent to intruders. Where this is not feasible, then alternating patrols by either commercial or local authority security teams can be effective. Such patrols should be random in order to avoid a recognised pattern. If such a service is used, close liaison should take place with the Police.

2. Prevent unauthorised entry into the building

If access to the site is controlled then the next barrier to the miscreant is the building itself.

  • Deep recesses and alcoves are particularly vulnerable. Ideally, building alterations should be undertaken to eliminate these features. Failing that, point lighting should be used.
  • The weakest points of entry into the building are, of course, the doors and windows. The numbers of doors and windows, particularly those out-of-view from the public, should be kept to a minimum. Clearly the means of escape should never be compromised and the Fire Services should always be consulted prior to any changes being made.
  • All external doors and windows should be fitted with approved locks (Thief Resistant Locks BS 3621 or BS EN 1303) and secured immediately after the building is vacated. The local crime prevention officer would be pleased to advise on this subject.
  • Door frame construction should be of a good quality, with solid core doors without lower panels which may easily be forced. The hinges and frames should be reinforced to deter removal. Where letterboxes are fitted they should be fitted with anti-arson mail boxes.
  • Break-ins via roof-lights should be prevented by fitting grills or bars within the inside of the frame.
  • Low level glazing should be avoided both on security and safety grounds. If this is not possible it should be laminated or toughened, and securely fixed within the frame.
  • Intruder alarms should be fitted. In most cases they should be connected to a call monitoring centre. Where the coverage of the alarm has to be limited – areas of high value should be alarmed. Consideration should be given to alarming areas such as corridors where intruders might be detected moving between rooms.
  • Schools should foster relationships with neighbours who are able to observe out-of-hours activity on the premises. In addition, the school should become involved in local Neighbourhood Watch schemes, or develop their own School Watch scheme in conjunction with the local police.
  • The installation of CCTV has a high deterrent effect. CCTV systems which are not monitored have limited value, as the wide-angle lenses used to get the required coverage do not provide recordings of evidential quality. Some joint arrangements for monitoring CCTV pictures between schools and local Councils who operate a CCTV system have proved valuable in spreading the costs. The subsequent reduction in vandalism has proved such schemes to be cost effective, despite the initial high capital outlay. Specialist advice should always be sought before installation of CCTV is considered.
  • With the use of school buildings outside normal school hours and opening the premises to a wider public, it is imperative that access to other parts of the school is limited. A routine should be adopted by a nominated person to check that all external doors and windows have been locked once the school is vacated at the end of the day. It is important that the means of escape are not compromised when deciding which areas to secure whilst the premises are occupied, and important also that the local Fire Safety Officer is consulted.
  • Many of these measures will not only prevent arson but keep the school more secure generally.

3. Reduce the opportunity for an offender to start a fire

If an arsonist intent on causing damage is unable to enter the premises then the opportunity to light a fire on the outside of the building is often exploited. In many circumstances wilful damage can get out-of-hand. For this reason, it is important that the opportunity to ignite combustible material is eliminated.

  • Refuse containers should ideally be placed in a secure compound or alternatively secured by a padlock and chain to a post sited no less than 8 metres from the building to prevent them being moved against the building.
  • Many schools are involved in recycling or fundraising initiatives where newspapers, clothing and other materials are collected. Recycling bins should be located at least 8 metres from the building in secure compounds, and collections made regularly to avoid a build-up.
  • Sheds and other storage facilities for sports and play equipment should be sited at least 8 metres away from the main building. This will avoid fire spread from such buildings involving the whole school.
  • Similar precautions should be taken with heating oil, natural gas and liquid petroleum gas installations. In particular the vulnerable parts of these systems, such as the pipe work and meters, should be secured and protected to avoid them from being vandalised and used as a ready supply of fuel. Bund walls should be provided around fuel tanks to ensure spillages are contained.
  • Skirts should be fitted at the base of mobile classrooms to prevent combustible materials being placed underneath buildings and ignited.
  • External waste bins should not be fixed to walls or under roofs constructed of combustible materials, but secured to the ground and away from the school buildings. They should be emptied each day as part of the close down routine.
  • All external gates need to be open during the day and closed at night as part of the close down routine.

4. Reduce the scope for potential fire damage

Should a fire be started, either deliberately or accidentally, it is important that its effect is minimised by containing the fire to a limited area, or ensuring high value contents are protected.

  • Schools of open-plan design are more difficult to protect than those with traditional layouts with separate classrooms. With the latter, the compartmentalisation (fire-stops in the roof/ceiling voids) is an essential element of the design even though the classroom construction may not be fire resisting.
  • During alterations and maintenance, consideration should be given to providing additional fire-break walls or doors to separate the building into compartments. This should include protection of concealed spaces such as roof voids. This needs to be properly designed and carried out with the assistance of professional advice.
  • This compartmentalisation may require fire-resisting screens and doors across corridors, and the restrictions this may impose can be reduced by installing hold-open devices linked to automatic fire detection. Doors not required to protect means-of-escape routes may be left open during school hours.
  • Sprinkler systems are rare in existing schools but are increasingly being fitted in new school buildings, particularly in those which have been assessed as high risk. Sprinkler systems are best regarded as a combined detection and extinguishing system. They have a proven track record over many years for successfully controlling fires in commercial buildings. The number and distribution of the sprinkler heads is arranged so that they can cover the area protected. This is usually the entire floor area of the school.
  • Partition walls need to be inspected regularly. When any maintenance, repair or alteration has been finished, such as installation of pipes/cables through partitions, the gaps around pipe work should be made good with fire protection in mind and the use of a fire retardant sealant.
  • Equipment of high material value, such as audio visual aids, computers and similar laboratory-type equipment, should ideally be located in a secure, separate room where it will be out of sight and better protected in a fire.
  • Warning of the outbreak of fire can significantly reduce the losses if early firefighting can be initiated. This ranges from a waste paper bin being extinguished by a member of staff to the alerting of the fire service whilst the premises are unoccupied. An automatic fire detection system, possibly using the same communication system as the intruder alarm, can mean the difference between containing the fire to the compartment of origin and the loss of the whole building and contents. To be effective the alarm must give warning off-site.
  • Sprinklers are expensive to install but are relatively cheap to maintain. By careful design of the system, malicious damage can be avoided by using concealed heads. There can be additional costs to provide a suitable water supply. Insurance premiums and retained excess levels where the school or LEA pays, for example, the first £100,000 of each loss from a retained fund, may be reduced in schools with sprinklers, thereby reducing the overall annual running costs.

5. Reduce subsequent losses and disruption resulting from a fire

  • Recognition should be given to the provision of the most appropriate form of extinguishing medium. Water mist extinguishers using de-ionised water offer broad fire figthing capability including fires involving electrical equipment. A Fire Risk Assessment should always be carried to ensure the correct types of extinguisher and quantity are identified.
  • Schools located away from residential areas may have poor water supplies which can hinder the fire service when trying to extinguish the fire. Ideally a private hydrant on a suitable sized main is desirable, but this is usually only available when the site is developed. An alternative would be an emergency water supply. This may be the swimming pool but could also be an ornamental pond of sufficient size which could double for a nature and wildlife studies area.
  • Members of staff should be adequately trained in fire procedures, including how to summon the Fire Service , building evacuation and the use of fire extinguishers. They should also be aware of the location of high value materials and equipment, particularly school records which may be irreplaceable and have knowledge of a salvage plan to recover these items.
  • In the event of a fire, a service recovery plan will be invaluable. This should be formulated in advance with the assistance of the LEA Risk Management Group where this exists, or with the Local Education Authority. The service recovery plan should include:
  1. Details of people who can help in an emergency
  2. Information about suppliers
  3. Inventory information
  4. How media enquiries will be handled


February 9, 2022[Last updated: February 9, 2022]

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