Arson school was high risk

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Gutted secondary was a 'soft target' for vandals. Nicola Porter reports

A south Wales secondary school gutted by fire last week was on a list of schools at high risk of an arson attack, it has been revealed.

But a leading fire officer said the 1,013-pupil Penyrheol comprehensive in Gorseinon, Swansea, had become a soft target because resources were diverted to carry out fire-prevention strategies elsewhere. He also claimed a sprinkler system could have saved the school.

Edwina Hart, the Assembly government's social justice and regeneration minister, is expected to make an announcement on arson-reducing schemes next week, following opposition concern about how quickly the fire spread through Penyrheol. Forty classrooms in the 1960s building were gutted, causing millions of pounds worth of damage.

Speaking at the official launch this week of new fire-risk guidance, Ms Hart said: "In 2004, there were 63 fires in schools and more than 70 per cent of those were started deliberately.

"The Assembly government has been piloting a programme of installing sprinklers in schools to protect vital community assets and irreplaceable school work."

Earlier this month she announced pound;500,000 of Assembly funding for new arson reduction teams involving police across Wales's three firefighting divisions. The Joint Arson Group, set up in Wales four years ago, estimates arson costs Welsh communities pound;90 million a year.

John Fitzjohn, divisional officer and head of community safety at the Mid and West Wales fire and rescue service, said Penyrheol was one of around 20 primary and secondary schools in Swansea on a high-risk list.

However, he said it was impossible for fire-prevention teams to focus attention on all the identified schools. And a spate of blazes at nearby Daniel James comprehensive last year meant less attention had been paid to Penyrheol.

He said: "We don't want at-risk schools turned into fortresses. But we are sold on sprinkler systems as a way of not only saving some of the huge financial costs of a school fire, but the heartbreaking human consequences as well."

Swansea council is one of a few local authorities to decide on a policy to include sprinkler systems in new schools. A council spokesperson said it had invested pound;284,000 in installing CCTV, shutters and fences, and developing close links with local police and fire services.

Fires and vandalism cost the authority pound;187,359 in school repairs in 2003-4.

He added: "There has been a significant downward trend in the number of insurance claims following cases of arson at schools. In 2001-2 the figure was 39. This compares with nine in this financial year, excluding Penyrheol."

Peter Black, Lib Dem education spokesperson, said: "I hope local councils invest in school buildings considered most at risk first."

It has also emerged that Penyrheol did not have CCTV - a key recommendation of 2003's Up in Flames report, which also advocated all new schools should have sprinkler systems installed.

Teachers at Penyrheol were deployed to a local library this week to give GCSE pupils revision advice and reassurance after last Saturday's blaze.

Talks are being held with exam boards after all coursework, including artwork, was destroyed.

Meanwhile, education officials hope to get pupils back to lessons by early next week. Head Alan Toothill said pupils studying for GCSEs were their priority.

* As TES Cymru went to press, two 17-year-old men arrested in connection with the Penyrheol fire had been released on police bail.

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