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The UK Government is sharing misleading figures on fires in schools

The UK Government is sharing misleading figures on fires

A recent blog written by the Department for Education (DfE) highlighted some key points about fire safety in schools. While the article stressed the importance of ensuring all students and staff are safe at school, the author made some interesting claims which were misleading and need clarification. As we head towards the long-awaited revised Building Bulletin 100: Design for Safety in Schools, it begs the question as to why the government is looking to make a backwards step towards fire safety and not require sprinklers in all schools?

The Department of Education blog post made two interesting claims, firstly that “Fires in schools are very rare and fewer than 1 in 1,000 school buildings are damaged by fire each year”. In the second statement, it said that ‘Home Office Data showing there are fewer than 500 school fires per year, with 90% of fires limited to one room or causing no damage.” 


So just how accurate are these figures? In the first statement, let’s look at how many fires in school premises cause damage. Using the fire incident data presented in the publicly available dataset there were 5,120 fires over the 10-year period 2010/11 to 2019/20 in schools reported to be Usually Occupied or Under Construction. Looking at the fires where the reported “Total Damage Extent” is anything other than zero square metres, there are 3,743 incidents. This would lead to an average of 374 fire incidents each year where fire damage is reported.


How many school buildings?

Based on the first statement, this would mean there are over 350,000 school buildings in the English Schools Estate. There does not appear to be any publicly figures published on the number of school buildings.

An article from the Construction index talks to 70,000 school buildings. This aligns to the government report on the condition of schools[1]. Although this report refers to “teaching blocks” to highlight that it collected data on 22,031 schools, comprising 63,942 teaching blocks. Based on these figures it is hard to determine that there are over 100,000 buildings let alone 350,000 buildings in the English school estate.

Therefore, without a clearer explanation of how they calculated this I cannot find figures to support the first statement.

How many fires in schools are reported as not spreading beyond the room of origin?

As noted above, there are 5,120 fire incidents recorded in the period of 2010/2011 to 2019/20. Fire impact is recorded based on the observation of the spread of fire in square metres of damage and based on a description of how much of the building is impacted.

Looking at those latter descriptors for fire incidents, they indicate 4,600 incidents as not spreading beyond the room of origin. This would be 89.8% of incidents. Based on these figures the second statement is based on the fire incident data.

However, having said this the room of origin could be rather bigger than one imagined. It is surprising to note that at least 5% of these incidents reported as being limited to the room of origin cause damage to an area greater than an average classroom area of 50 square metres.

Impact of school fires

The article states that fires in schools are rare but I cannot find evidence that convinces me of that. It doesn’t talk about the impact of a fire on a child’s education and the ripple effect. Fifteen days of a school term is 5% of a child’s learning lost for that academic year. The government acknowledges that missing lessons has an impact on attainment at key stages. They track attendance and have commissioned reports, which confirm the harmful impact. Indeed, fines of between £60 to £120 can be levied for a child missing a single day of education. The disruption caused by school fires will adversely affect the results of students, and the government’s own statistics confirm this.

The BSA has always highlighted that BB100 sets the right expectations around the protection of schools and the continuity of education. It sets an expectation that the school should be fully functional within 24 hours of a fire, apart from the room where the fire occurred. The BSA wants the government to explicitly maintain these objectives and enhance the “sprinkler expectation” in the revised BB100 so that fewer schools are damaged and destroyed by fire. Fewer than one-in-six new schools have been built with a sprinkler system installed. It is time we changed that.

1Condition of School Buildings Survey – Key findings – May 2021, Department of Education.

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