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Money to burn
Local Government Chronicle – 12 September 2003

School fires cost 96m in 2002, leaving insurers Zurich Municipal keen to stop the latest rash of attacks, says Mark Smulian

Danny fancies his sister's best friend Carmen, and reckons that working his way through a series of outrageous dares will win her affections.

But should he keep quiet when he hears that some of his mates are planning arson, especially as he slowly learns the details of what really happened the night that two pupils were killed in a fire at his school nearly 30 years earlier?

Pupils in Scotland and northern England will have the chance to decide this autumn when insurer Zurich Municipal sponsors a theatre group's tour of schools in an attempt to discourage a rash of school arson attacks.

As the main insurer of council-owned school buildings - a business it inherited from the old Municipal Mutual - Zurich Municipal has plenty to be worried about.

In 1999, school arson cost 42m, a sum that had not changed much over the preceding decade. But in 2000 it rocketed to 65m and in 2002 hit 96m.

The play and its associated workshops, under the name of Arson Combated Together, will be launched in Scotland which has suffered a disproportionate 34% of the total cost of school fires across the UK. England's Midlands region accounts for 43%, but, in contrast, the whole of southern England and Wales comprises only 7% of the total.

Like a good many other factors, no one is quite sure of the reasons behind this regional breakdown, including Larry Stokes, Zurich Municipal underwriting manager and an acknowledged authority on school arson.

"Scotland's arson record is totally disproportionate. I've no idea why, although it does have a higher level of fires of all kinds than the rest of the country," he says.

The increase in arson damage costs is partly the result of a series of larger fires. There were 2,400 school fires in 2001, a jump of 17% on the previous year. Arson is responsible for 75% of all school fires, where the cause is known.

Zurich Municipal is backing Arson Combated Together to get its message across in an appealing way to 11 and 12 year olds. The idea is to influence these children before they become 14-15 year olds, the most problematic age group, with secondary schools five times more likely to be torched than primary schools.

Mr Stokes, who also chairs the Arson Prevention Bureau's arson in schools working party, says: "There are various reasons why children burn schools.

"Problems with a teacher or a subject may spark it off, and the main time of danger is the end of the holidays and the start of term." Indeed, a spate of arson occurred on cue when Scotland's schools returned from their summer break in late August.

He adds: "I don't see much improvement, but I'm hopeful the large sums committed by the government to new-build and rehabilitation will help, especially with secondary schools."

Mr Stokes says the worst affected schools are those constructed using system building methods, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

While the pupils attending these schools may not have any particular propensity to start more fires than others, when a fire takes hold in one of these buildings, it can spread very rapidly through the roof voids, causing much more widespread damage.

This is because there is usually a single space that occupies the entire length and breadth of the school with nothing in it to stop a fire from spreading.

Victorian schools also have this problem, but if a fire is attacked quickly their structures tend to stand up better than do 1960s schools.

Most school fires take place at night, but, alarmingly, investigations by the West Midlands and South Yorkshire fire services, and by the bureau, indicate an increase in daytime fires.

Although these tend to be spotted and extinguished quickly, they introduce a danger to children's lives not normally found in night fires. Again, the causes of this upsurge are hazy.

But as an insurer, what is Zurich Municipal asking councils to do to prevent arson?

"We are trying to move sprinklers up the agenda and over 100 schools now have them, but most are new or ones that were rebuilt after fires and retro-fitting is limited," says Mr Stokes.

Until two years ago sprinklers were rare, but Zurich Municipal has had some success in convincing private finance initiative contractors to fit them. One look at the cost of insuring a new school with no sprinklers is usually enough to convince them.

New school buildings are normally compartmentalised, which means that if a fire starts, it should be containable in the section where it occurs and not spread to the rest of the building.

Simple measures like secure fences can make a big difference by impeding intruders, and the company is also training head teachers and caretakers in arson awareness, in terms of minimising the presence of waste combustible materials or unsupervised corners where daytime fires may be started.

In the play, a chance conversation with school caretaker Mr Eames starts to turn Danny away from vandalism.

As the new term starts, education directors, head teachers and insurers must be wishing it was always that simple.

How one education authority is tackling arson

One education director at the sharp end of suspected arson is Blackpool BC's David Lunt.

The council's town centre school, Devonshire Park, was burnt down, unusually, in broad daylight on a Saturday.

By good fortune, Blackpool had a spare school building two miles away that was due to be demolished having itself been replaced this term by a new 3.5m building.

Mr Lunt says staff worked "round the clock" to get the old school, from which all equipment had been removed, ready for the 400 displaced pupils.

"It was luck rather than design, a week later demolition would have started," he says.

Very little could be salvaged from the arson as what had not been burnt had suffered either smoke or water damage.

Loss adjusters have given Blackpool the go-ahead to re-equip the school in its temporary home, but it will be many months before the terms of the insurance settlement are known.

Mr Lunt says: "At the old school a key issue was that it was a hundred years old and was not designed for modern use.

"It had fire protection equipment, but the new school is specifically designed in consultation with police." The new building will also be compartmentalised.

He predicts a problem for education departments in the general enthusiasm for wider community access to school facilities in the evenings and at weekends.

While Mr Lunt thinks this is desirable, it "means longer opening hours and that opens up additional risks".

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