Sparks fly over fire safety funding

Mike Kent

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to tonight's lecture. The subject is: "How to waste the taxpayer's money".

In my 31 years as a headteacher, we've only had one inspection by the fire brigade, where we were deemed perfectly safe. Then, 18 months ago, there was a fire in a Southwark block of flats, in which people died because there was only one safety exit.

As if to compensate, fire brigade officers then visited a number of local schools, condemning almost everything they saw. Mine was one. We were told we needed to update our alarm (the current requirement is at a decibel level that would break the average eardrum), fit fireproof doors, install shatterproof glass in the corridors, make sure coats don't fall off pegs because they are "trip hazards", and fill in the kitchen hatch because a flame from there could leak into the hall.

Worst of all, though, was the attitude towards our wonderful work displays throughout the building. Get these "combustible wall substances" into little fireproof glass-fronted cabinets, said the officer, or take them down.

Let's put this into perspective. Fire safety is vital, so we have our fire safety equipment serviced annually. We have a modern alarm, regular fire drills and a large number of safety exits. No stone fortress like my school has ever burned down. I don't even recall a fire in one. Nevertheless, we asked the local authority to do some cost investigations for us.

Following an initial meeting in which it was suggested the work might cost #163;20,000, which we could just about manage from our reserves, three tenders were obtained. The lowest was #163;40,000, the highest #163;70,000. This was especially interesting because one of the firms sent two men to quote for the job. They sat in their van waiting for their boss and when he didn't turn up, they left.

Naturally, we couldn't afford these massive sums, especially as we'd just had a serious water leak under the playground that had eaten into our reserves, so I asked the LEA to help. In 30 years, I have never approached the authority for extra money. I have never overspent the budget, and the auditors have always said our money management is excellent. The LEA officer agreed to forward my request to the funding committee.

Astonishingly, it was turned down. I was told "assistance is only given to schools in exceptional circumstances, such as special measures, or where deficit budgets have been accumulated". In other words, if I ran a rotten school or spent like crazy and got the school into real financial difficulty, I'd have money thrown at me. The LEA would "lend" me the money ... but we'd have to pay it back from future budgets. Since money is going to be incredibly tight for the next few years, this would probably prove impossible.

Of course, even if we could afford the work, there's always the worry of making sure it is done properly. I've heard of a school that installed fire safety doors, but the fitters had been lax in ensuring they all opened in the same direction. In an emergency, children and teachers would waste precious minutes pushing instead of pulling. In another school, the fire officer insisted all alarm buttons be within reach of the smallest child. Now the school empties into the playground at least once a week due to mischievous little fingers.

So, ladies and gentlemen, what to do? Would it be churlish to suggest the #163;70,000 might best be used purchasing a second fire exit for a block of flats?

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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Mike Kent

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