How to Combat Arson in Schools

Anxious Teenage Student Sitting Examination In School HallEach year in the UK an estimated 1,400 – 1,800 arson attacks occur in schools, with one in eight schools suffering a serious arson attack*. There has been a 15% increase in arson attacks recorded since 2014/15, the threat to educational premises of suffering devastating damage and putting lives at risk is real**.  It is reported that an estimated 90,000 UK school children have their education disrupted in some way due to a school fire and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) estimates that school fires cost around £100 million a year. Arson in schools is a major concern, 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, the 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 were summed up by the head teacher:

”The first reaction is shock and numbness, followed by total disbelief and then the 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 textbooks 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 the 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 then 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.

This guide puts together some key points to consider when assessing and managing the risk of arson within an educational setting.

What is arson?

Arson is a criminal act whereby someone wilfully and deliberately sets fire to property. Arson attacks commonly involve buildings but this criminal act also refers to the intentional burning of other things such as vehicles etc.

Who is responsible for the management of arson attacks on educational premises?

Combating and managing the threat of arson attacks is the responsibility of each school, including; school governors, headteachers, premises managers and the Local Education Authority.  An estimated 75% of school fires result from a malicious act*, so it is vital to manage risks to protect staff, pupils, visitors and premises.

Assessing a school’s vulnerability to an arson attack

In order to prevent an arson attack on a school, the management must first assess the vulnerability of their premises to attack. The responsible person should have adequate knowledge and competency to carry out the assessment and interpret the findings. This fire risk assessment for educational premises guide and questionnaire will help guide you through the assessment process. When assessing your risk of arson, you should take into account that nearly a third of all school fires start during school time*.

If you have a complex building, or feel that the responsible person within your school does not have the level of expertise required to carry out this assessment, it is advisable to have a professional risk assessment carried out.

Action planning against arson

Once an arson assessment has been carried out, the next priority is to address the weaknesses identified. Management and training are vital ingredients of a fire safety policy, ensure that you communicate with all stakeholders the outcome of your assessment and the steps you are taking to reduce the risk of arson in your school.

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 fire

Here we look into the five-point action plan in more depth:

1. Deter unauthorised entry onto the site

  • Delineate the school boundary with robust fencing or sturdy hedging. Install clear private property signage, outlining that unauthorised entry would be trespassing. Make it clear for would-be trespassers and help neighbours to spot people entering the school site out-of-hours.
  • Trespassing and associated vandalism occur mostly out-of-school hours and often under cover of darkness. It is recommended to install good lighting such as LED flood lights on overlooked elevations and motion detection sensors for elevations not-overlooked. Lighting tone should be compatible with any CCTV and be mindful that lighting in not-overlooked areas could attract unwanted attention from intruders.
  • The presence of school staff living on site is a high deterrent to intruders. Where this is not feasible, consider random patrols by commercial or local authority security teams. Liaison with the Police is required if you use security patrolling.

2. Prevent unauthorised entry into the building

The weakest points of entry into a building are doors and windows.

  • The number of doors and windows, particularly those out of view from the public, should be kept to a minimum. Consult your local Fire Service before making any changes to ensure that any means of escape is not compromised.
  • Fit solid doors with reinforced hinges and frames, where possible with no recessed panels or windows as these can be easily forced.
  • Fit external doors and windows with approved locks (Thief Resistant Locks BS 3621 or BS EN 1303) and secure them immediately after vacating the building.
  • Install anti-arson mailboxes to enclose any burning materials inserted through the letterbox.
  • Prevent entry via roof lights by fitting grills or bars inside of the frame.
  • Avoid low-level glazing on security and safety grounds, or install laminated or toughened glass securely fixed within the frame.
  • Intruder alarms should be fitted, ideally connected to a call monitoring centre. Where the coverage of the alarms has to be limited, alarm areas such as corridors where intruders might be detected moving between rooms.
  • The installation of CCTV has a high deterrent effect. Look for joint CCTV monitoring schemes between schools and local Councils, this can help with cost implications and management of the system. The subsequent reduction in vandalism has proved such schemes to be cost-effective, despite the initial high capital outlay. Seek specialist advice before installing CCTV.
  • If your school is used outside of normal hours for clubs and other activities, ensure you have a system in place to minimise access to other parts of the building, but ensure any means of escape from occupied areas is not affected. These measures will reduce the risk of arson and keep the school generally more secure.

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

If an arsonist cannot enter the premises the opportunity to light a fire outside is often exploited. There are some common-sense steps that you can take to reduce the risk of combustible material being ignited outside.

  • Store refuse and recycling containers in a secure compound or alternatively secure with a padlock and chain to a post no less than 8 metres from the building.
  • Playground waste bins should be fixed to the ground away from the building. Empty all bins regularly to prevent a build-up of combustible material.
  • Site sheds and storage facilities for sports and play equipment at least 8 metres from the main building to avoid fire spreading to the whole school.
  • Take particular precautions with heating oil, natural gas and liquid petroleum gas installations. Pipework and meters should be secured and protected to prevent them from being vandalised and used as a ready supply of fuel. Install bund walls around fuel tanks to contain spillages.
  • Fit skirts at the base of mobile classrooms to prevent combustible materials from being placed and ignited underneath them.

4. Reduce the scope for potential fire damage

Should a fire be started, deliberately or accidentally, it is essential to minimise the damage by containing the fire and 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, 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, give consideration to providing additional fire-break walls and fire doors to separate the building into compartments, including protecting concealed spaces such as roof voids. This should be designed and carried out with the assistance of professional advice.
  • Inspect partition walls regularly, particularly when any maintenance, repair or alteration has been finished. Gaps around pipework should be made good with a fire-retardant sealant.
  • This compartmentalisation may require fire doors and screens across corridors, limit the restrictions these may impose by installing hold-open devices linked to automatic fire detection.
  • Sprinkler systems can be regarded as a combined detection and extinguishing system with the potential to cover the whole floor area. They have a proven track record over many years for successfully controlling fires in commercial buildings.

5. Reduce subsequent losses and disruption resulting from a fire

  • Have the correct type of fire extinguisher installed to use in an emergency by your trained staff. Water mist extinguishers using de-ionised water offer broad firefighting capability, including fires involving electrical equipment. A Fire Risk Assessment should always be completed, ensuring the correct types of extinguishers and quantity are installed.
  • 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 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: August 31, 2023]

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