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Call for cash to fight arsonists

A leading chief education officer has called for more government money to improve school security after a suspected arson attack gutted a school in his area.

The appeal was made by Roy Jobson, chair of the Association of Chief Education Officers and chief education officer of Manchester. He also called for a campaign against arson to be included in the Government's fight against crime.

The blaze at the Abraham Moss Centre in Crumpsall, North Manchester, destroyed the secondary school, which shares a site with a leisure centre and adult and further education facilities.

Manchester City Council's education department expects the cost of the damage to run into millions and says the rebuilding work will take more than two years. Three-quarters of the 1960s building was destroyed by the fire and the rest suffered smoke and water damage.

Fire crews struggled to stop the blaze from spreading beyond the school after buildings were set alight last Thursday night and were still damping down the smouldering ruins on Sunday.

Mr Jobson's call highlights fears that arson attacks on schools are rising and that increased violence by children is linked to growing alcohol and drug abuse by youngsters.

A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester Police said officers were treating the fire as arson but were unsure who started it or whether the the culprits had been drinking or taking drugs.

Mr Jobson said: "Chief education officers are terribly concerned about the rise in arson attacks.

"I will be talking to the Government about increasing the amount of money that is invested in school security. The resources that have been provided so far have only helped a limited number of LEAs.

"A campaign against arson also needs to be built into the Government's attack on crime and the causes of crime."

Larry Stokes, chair of the schools' working party of the insurance industry's arson prevention bureau, said arson accounted for more than three-quarters of losses caused by fire reported to Zurich Municipal Insurance. The cost of losses from major fires had risen from around pound;30 million in 1993 to an estimated pound;55m in 1996, according to the Association of British Insurers.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said pound;60m was being given to education authorities to improve school security over the next three years and pound;6m was to be given to grant-maintained schools in the same period. The money will be allocated according to the number of pupils and schools in any one area and LEAs would have to give priority to schools that, according to risk assessments, face greater security problems .

The Home Office said it hoped plans to crack down on youth crime would include arson. Likely measures in the Government's Crime and Disorder Bill included toughening community service orders and in some measure holding parents to account for the actions of their children. Moves to ban named persons from drinking in pubs or public places were also planned.

* Last week the parents of a 14-year-old boy were told by a judge at Bolton Crown Court to pledge a recognisance of pound;1,000 until he was 18 after he admitted setting fire to Withins School in Bolton. The youth stole computer equipment and started a fire that caused pound;750,000 of damage.

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