A retired head in our county often entertains us by telling his job interview stories. In the course of one encounter, the chairman of governors asked, with transparent eagerness, "Is it true that both your previous schools suffered serious fires and had to be totally rebuilt - with brand new books and resources?" Which is as good a reminder as any that distressing, demoralising and expensive as fires are, schools which have them do rise again.
Nobody seems to be sure just how much school fires cost each year. The Department for Education and Employment believes that the cost to local authorities of all vandalism, including arson, is about Pounds 50 million, but insurance companies feel the true cost could be as much as eight times that. Certainly few urban authorities get through a year without a significant school fire, the consequences of which go far beyond the figures on the various invoices.
Any fire invariably tests the patience and morale of the school. To begin with, by its very nature, the news that the school is burning will always arrive abruptly at an unsocial hour. John Williams, for example, was looking forward to taking up at the start of this term, the acting headship of Church-fields High School in Sandwell when he was phoned at 3am on August bank holiday Monday.
"I thought, 'There goes my future school.' It was rather distressing."
Much of the distress comes from knowing the people whose lives will be disrupted by the fire. At Churchfields, explains John Williams, "It destroyed a building that the community uses. The people most affected are the children in a playgroup, who have had to go into inferior accommodation."
Young pupils, too, were the chief victims at Gooseacre primary, in Barnsley, where school pets died in a fire which last year did Pounds 1 million worth of damage to the infant and nursery blocks.
Jan Spiller, head of Leigham infants in Plymouth, describes the reaction to a fire which earlier this year destroyed her school and the neighbouring junior school: "It was a terrible experience. At first it didn't sink in - I thought that the fire brigade would get there and that the damage would be limited. Then I saw that it really had taken hold and was raging through the building. " Her pupils were deeply upset. "Some of them had nightmares intitially, and they still talk about it, though on the whole they have coped brilliantly."
In any dire emergency, the heads of local authority schools seek immediate help from authority officers. The usual experience is that the response is immediate and excellent - temporary buildings arrive, rebuilding plans are put in train.
The buildings, though, are only part of the story. For the school staff, the real problems start when they have to replace all their carefully prepared lesson materials, schemes, books and records. Typically, the staff will work long hours to rectify the damage. Jan Spiller describes how "we had worked for two years building up our library, and after the fire not a page was recognisable. What took years to gather together was lost overnight."
Important management information can be lost, too. Julie Saxelby, head of Gooseacre primary, says: "We lost all the children's academic records and all the special needs records."
Typically though, the distress of heads and teachers is invariably lightened not only by the quick response of officials but by the generosity of other people. Jan Spiller speaks of "tremendous support from neighbouring heads. There were offers of temporary accommodation from many schools, and other schools arranged fun days to raise funds for us. The community, too, has been raising funds and offering help."
The other side of the coin is, of course, that most school fires are deliberately started by children, often, presumably, the same ones who take part in fund raising to help arson-hit schools. Who are they, and why do they do it?
Often, arson is simply an extension of the vandalism that accompanies the illegal forays that young people make into their own or other schools. A Pounds 750,000 fire at Withins School in Bolton this year was started by a 14-year-old boy who stole computer equipment.
On the other hand, some fires are started, if not accidentally, then at least by children unable to foresee what will happen, and who do not really intend such dire results. One boy of eight (too young to be prosecuted) was reported in the press this summer as having lit a fire which burned down a school. According to police, "He admitted starting the fire but claimed he had not meant to destroy the school."
More deliberate, but also more difficult to categorise, was the action of the 15-year-old who this summer torched his school library in an attempt to postpone GCSE exams that he feared he would fail.
According to Roy Jobson, chief education officer of Manchester, drugs and alcohol play an increasing part not only in arson but in youth crime generally. In May of this year, in the aftermath of the fire which destroyed Abraham Moss School in Crumpsall, he appealed for more government money to be put into school security.
He is pleased that "new deal" arrangements for distributing capital funding will help - "but having said that there is always going to be a limit to what you can do, if wrong-doers are determined."
Just so long as there are children who roam school premises and grounds without the knowledge of their parents, and adults who lack the will or the courage to inform on them, so it seems likely that arson incidents will continue.
Perhaps the best immediate hope is that publicity and advice on school security will make it increasingly difficult for intruders to get inside school buildings.
Nottinghamshire, for example, according to Richard Lawson who looks after risk management in the authority, has had what he describes as "quite a good experience this year from the insurance claims point of view. But you can never relax - in late August for example we had a fire that may cost Pounds 125, 000."
Nottinghamshire is typical of the many authorities that work hard at spending security money in the most efficient way. "We look at the history of incidents, then we put togethe r a batting order of the projects we want to spend money on over the year. We'll have meetings at the schools to come up with a balanced package of measures - security fencing, access control, alarms, fire compartmentalisation," says Richard Lawson.
The picture this paints is a bleak one - of fortress schools, many of which will have the word "community" in their titles - besieged by ill-intentioned young people, some of whom seem intent on destroying the very institution which may well be their best hope of escape from unemployment and further crime. The only other solution is to convince the community that the school belongs to them, and that they should care for it.
Roy Jobson believes, echoing the Prime Minister, that "It's as much about addressing the needs of people and the causes of the problem as it is about security. All the evidence is that the best form of defence is the community's own desire to have a good school in its locality."
WHAT TO DO BEFOREHAND
* Where is your list of emergency out-of-hours contact numbers for local authority officers and for your own school staff? If it is in school, make further copies, to keep at home and in your wallet or handbag
* Make a back-up of all computer records to take off the prem-ises each evening
* Consider whether it is worth photocopying any of your important non-computerised records and taking them away too
* Ask your teachers to do a personal risk assessment of their own professional materials and records. Should they consider keeping some of them at home?
* After a school fire, making an inventory of destroyed or damaged items becomes an onerous, time-consuming task. If you have an updated list of equipment, with as much detail as possible about each item, and you keep a copy of it at home, then the job becomes a little easier
AFTER A FIRE
* Contact the local authority immediately, whatever the time of day or night. They have been through all of this before
* Contact your chairman of governors, also immediately
* If you cannot open next day, tell the parents through local radio; place big notices at the school gate, and have a teacher out there to make sure everyone knows what has happened
* Keeping the school together is a priority. Kindly meant instant offers from other schools to house one or two classes may have to be put on hold until the position is clarified
* As time goes on, keep parents fully informed. This is polite, and helps to alleviate anxiety. It also pre-empts rumours
* Do not disappear too quickly into meetings with governors and advisers, leaving colleagues to guess what is happening
* The danger is that while you and a few others are run ragged, other staff will be left feeling helpless and upset - unable to enter their ruined classrooms, for example. Try to share out work among all staff so that each person feels that they are doing something positive
* Set a calm, positive, forward-looking tone for colleagues, parents and pupils
* If and when any pupils reconvene, be prepared for distress. Very young children often fear that the fire may happen again
* When schools lend you books and equipment - as they will - make sure someone, however busy, keeps a careful record so that all goes back to the right place
* Keep a similarly careful record of the donations which, experience shows, will come in from the community