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Practise the drill at lunchtime too

Fires can happen at any time and staff must be ready, writes Luke Darlington

Fire breaks out at lunchtime. You are head. What do you do? After all, it is as likely to occur then as at any other time of the day. No doubt you practise termly fire drills during the main teaching sessions, arranging different times and days, involving supply teachers and voluntary helpers, and ensuring that everyone is aware of the procedure. But lunchtime is another matter. It is far more inconvenient (so are fires) and you cannot assume every teacher will be on the site.

The first person to liaise with is the cook, who should be able to arrange a suitable menu in advance so hot meals aren't interrupted by the drill.

You could consult the School Meals Service which might be able to offer some guidance on the matter.

Then discuss evacuation details with the lunchtime assistants (LTAs). Their actions are crucial, and since you can be sure most will have no experience whatsoever of calling andor interpreting class and dinner registers, they will need to be shown. They may never have witnessed a fire drill either, so they should certainly have the opportunity.

Tell the teaching staff that although their active presence and participation is voluntary, they should vacate the building. And if they wish to become involved they could take over from the LTAs after observing them undertake the procedure.

Tell the children exactly what is expected of them, including sandwich eaters. Let them know in advance.

It is not appropriate at this stage to have an unannounced drill. Arrange it during a period of settled weather.

Consider what to do if there is more than one lunch sitting. It may be necessary to rehearse the exercise more than once so that all the children experience it while eating.

The following could be the basis for a lunchtime fire drills policy, but you will need your own specific one:

* all LTAs receive training and know how many children should be present on any given day. New staff are trained promptly;

* the headteacher rings the firebell, then all LTAs in the dining-hall direct the children from the room before checking the classrooms and cloakrooms. LTAs on playground duty collect children from distant areas, including club activities, and take them to their class assembly points outside;

* children eating lunch stand quietly, then walk from the hall by the nearest exit or as directed, leaving their coats and food behind. Children in classrooms and cloakrooms use the nearest exit, walking quietly to their assembly points;

* the senior supervisor collects the class and dinner registers from the school office and distributes them among the LTAs. The dinner registers are for double-checking who has gone home for lunch;

* all LTAs supervise the children at the assembly point, having previously agreed which classes to manage and who will call each register. There is a head count followed by calling the full names of children, so those with similar forenames do not reply by mistake and there is no confusion with unisex names;

* replies to the LTAs will be made using their surnames to avoid confusion;

* either the head, the deputy head or a nominated representative is present every lunchtime to assume overall control and ensure that all the class registers are called;

* when the practice is over the children and staff return to where they were and continue as before;

* each practice is evaluated by the head, the kitchen staff, the LTAs, the teachers and classroom assistants without delay;

* this policy is reviewed regularly.

Yes, it may be inconvenient and some infants will find it confusing and may be upset. You might encounter lethargy or even opposition. But see it as a parent or as a child. Consider the worst possible scenario on a future dreadful day and remember who is accountable for anticipating such an event.

Consider, too, your moral duty towards the LTAs in enabling them not just to cope but to act efficiently in an emergency, and try not to salve your conscience, knowing you have practised the drill once. Repeat it at least annually so it becomes routine.

It is no use hoping a lunchtime fire will not happen to you. Could you look critics in the eye and honestly say you did your best if the worst happened?

Luke Darlington is a retired headteacher

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