Cover story - Burning question

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Hannah Frankel looks at the human cost to schools of the pound;70m arson spree last year

Greg Sadler was on the golf course when he took the fateful call. "A member of staff told me the school was on fire," says the deputy head. "I laughed and told him to put it out."

Unfortunately, it was not that easy. More than 70 firefighters battled the flames at St Felix Middle School in Newmarket, Suffolk, on August 5 last year, but there was nothing they could do.

"As soon as you saw it, it was clear that it was completely unsavable," says Tony Bavington, headteacher, who was on holiday in Amsterdam at the time.

Smoke billowed across the A14 more than a mile away, forcing the road to shut. And the rubble continued to smoulder for another 10 days. "It was terribly traumatic for everyone."

The pound;6.5 million blaze had been deliberately started by a 14-year-old ex- pupil who clambered in through a classroom window and lit some paper. The blaze is likely to have spread to a cupboard that contained some sugar paper and then made its way into the ceiling.

There was only one fire break in the roof void to slow the progress of the flames. Unfortunately, it proved woefully inadequate.

St Felix would have been just one of 20 schools in the UK hit by arson that week, figures suggest. Together with warehouses, they are one of the most likely property targets for arson, because they are big, often empty spaces with limited security. About 1,800 school fires are reported to fire brigades each year, three quarters of which will have been started deliberately, according to Zurich Municipal, which insures the majority of state schools. On top of that, a further 1,800 blazes go unreported, Zurich Municipal estimates.

These fires may not result in the carnage that claimed the life of 210 Australians in the bush fires earlier this year, but that is more by luck than judgment. Government figures show there are two deaths a week as a result of arson in the UK, plus another 53 injuries. Given the scale of arson in schools and the increase in daytime fires - a third of arson attacks now occur during normal school hours - a fatality could just be a matter of time.

Even when lives are not endangered, the financial, educational and emotional cost can be huge. Experienced St Felix staff, stripped of a career's worth of lesson plans and teaching materials, said they felt like newly qualified teachers again.

"It was almost indescribable - like being slammed into a brick wall," says Tim Young, who is now part-time head of the English department, who came out of retirement after the fire to help out. He has been with the school since 1977, and was its headteacher for more than 20 years before his short-lived retirement three years ago.

"It's hard to explain the nothingness of nothing. You want a stapler, you need to go out and buy one. The same with pens, resources, exercise books, software, computers. Everything that was once automatic becomes like wading through treacle."

For Mr Young, one of the worst moments was seeing what had become of the school's busy drama studio. "So much had happened there from songs to shows, and now it's just a hole full of rainwater. The fire has stolen all those memories."

Amid the anger and upset, senior staff had to work out the logistics of how and where pupils should be educated. In September, the 400 pupils were split between two Newmarket primary schools and a high school, which offered their playgrounds or car parks for temporary classrooms. Lunch until Christmas was on picnic benches outside.

"They were terribly hospitable, but it does put you on edge when you're on someone else's turf," says Sue Senior, head of modern foreign languages, who lost 31 years' worth of work when the arsonist struck. "You feel like you're visiting. It can be the little things: One of the other school's Year 1 children ran out of the toilets crying when he caught sight of one of our big Year 6 boys. We felt like we were visitors all the time and that can be uncomfortable."

Specialist teachers became generalists - teaching one class as if in a primary school - because it was impossible for the 45 staff to travel between the three sites. Just five months after the fire, all the pupils returned to temporary accommodation on playing fields beside the burnt-out site. They will stay until the summer of 2012, when the school will be closed as part of a move towards a two-tier system.

"The properties division of the council thought it would be impossible to get us all back on site in five months," says Mr Bavington. "It's been a staggering achievement, although we haven't been able to get up to full speed yet. As soon as we moved back in December, the power failed and the plumbing froze, but we're getting there."

The turmoil St Felix has experienced, and continues to experience, is not unique. Every year, 90,000 pupils are affected by arson. Some will spend months in temporary accommodation while others will be divvied up between other local schools.

Larry Stokes, from Zurich Municipal, an insurance provider, has heard of pupils in a school in Kent being bussed to a nunnery 10 miles away. Another had to decamp in an old people's home. "Disruption" does not come close to describing it, he says.

It is unlikely the young Daniel Mitson (who was named by the judge despite his age given the gravity of the case), gave much thought to the chaos he was unleashing at St Felix. He claims to have just wanted to set off the fire alarms. Like most perpetrators who target schools, he fits into the "youth disorder" category of arsonists. They are most likely to be six to 15-year-old boys already known to the authorities for other antisocial behaviour. Daniel already had an Asbo for previous convictions, including criminal damage and shoplifting.

"Arsonists are often groups of boys who may be into drinking or taking drugs," says Dr Louise Almond, a forensic psychologist at the University of Liverpool and co-author of the 2002 Home Office report on arson. "They're mostly likely to start fires for sociological reasons, rather than due to psychological disturbances. There's a lot of bravado and peer pressure going on. They're bored, they spot an opportunity and they take it."

The link between social deprivation and arson is particularly strong among this group: poorer communities with high levels of unemployment are 31 times more likely to be victims of arson than those who live in more affluent areas, studies suggest.

Other motivations for arsonists are malicious (pupils or ex-pupils who have a grudge against a school or teacher); those who use arson as a vehicle for "emotional expression" (perhaps to let out anger or to grab attention); and criminal arsonists who want to destroy evidence linked to other more serious crimes, such as theft or murder.

Children under 10 years old may play with fire out of natural curiosity. They enjoy watching the flames lick their toys or belongings, before running away and hiding if it gets out of hand. Almost 90 per cent of these children will have parents who smoke. The easy access to matches or lighters is the most likely causal factor, as opposed to bad behavioural problems.

Genuine pyromania, an "unnatural fascination" with fire that may bring about sexual arousal, is very rare. The arsonists' pyromania is likely to be part of a much wider personality disorder, such as schizophrenia or psychosis.

The extent of the damage they reap will depend on the type of school infrastructure, says Mr Stokes. Victorian buildings fare quite well because they are small, protected sites surrounded by iron railings or secure brick walls. Schools built in the 1960s and 1970s are harder to protect because they are often surrounded by open playing fields.

As with St Felix, these buildings are more likely to have spaces above the ceiling where the wires are concealed. "Once the fire gets into that void, it can spread rapidly along the wires," Mr Stokes says. "If it spreads to the roof, it's game over."

One of the most worrying suggestions is that modern schools are just as vulnerable as those built 40 years ago. In March 2007, Jim Knight, Schools Minister, announced that all new schools are now "expected" to be fitted with sprinklers, but he stopped short of making it a statutory requirement. Today, just over 1 per cent of UK schools have installed them.

"There has been some improvement," concedes Mr Stokes. "Five years ago, 20 schools had them, and that included those that had actually experienced fires. Now, it's about 400 out of 32,000-odd schools."

A big part of the problem is cost. Sprinklers would cost a small primary school approximately pound;100,000, or pound;500,000 for a large secondary. However, that is only about 2 per cent of the total building costs, and it would be a an almost insignificant expense for a pound;25 million academy.

"Academies look great from the outside, but aren't the best from an insurance perspective," says Mr Stokes. "They've been particularly slow to embrace sprinklers."

If new builds do not put sprinklers in at the design stage, the expense is likely to deter them from any retrospective installation. New construction methods and trends make sprinklers even more important, Mr Stokes says.

Sustainable building materials such as timber cladding, polystyrene installation and cedar walls and roofs are much more combustible than traditional concrete blocks or tiles.

Larger new builds, including academies, also present a bigger single risk, he adds. One fire could see the whole build destroyed, as opposed to schools that are separated and scattered across several blocks.

Large central atriums, which have become fashionable in new builds, do not have partition walls that can stop fire spreading, and if timber cladding stretches down to floor level, it is more susceptible to burning bins.

Keeping the building's exterior clean and rubbish-free should limit such opportunities. It is also worth remembering the "broken window" theory.

If young people see that neglect is tolerated and seems normal, it is likely to provoke further vandalism, including arson.

Dealing with small incidents before they escalate is also crucial, as minor fires could get out of control, or alert authorities to a wider trend.

One school failed to report eight small, seemingly innocuous fires to the fire brigade. Its ninth fire, "the big one", cost it Pounds 8 million. "Even if they're bin fires, they should be reported," says Mr Stokes. "They are the tell-tale signs of something worse to come. Serious arsonists need to be identified and helped at an earlier stage, while the fire brigade can check the building over to make sure it complies with current safety standards."

Caring about the school campus and early reporting will help, but it is not an entirely fail-safe measure. St Felix was well maintained and had never experienced any fires before. Its staff and pupils are trying to remain positive about their experience and their new school, but it's not always easy.

"Some of the classrooms are bigger than they used to be and we've now got up to date resources," says Mr Bavington.

"We just have to remember that a school is its pupils, not its buildings."


  • 90,000 children are affected by arson each year.
  • 20 schools, on average, are damaged or destroyed by arson each week.
  • 12 is the average age of fire vandals.
  • 400 out of 32,000 schools in the UK are fitted with sprinklers.
  • pound;70 million is the cost of arson to schools in 2008.
  • 50 per cent of school fires are reported to fire departments.
  • 1,800 school fires were reported to fire brigades in 2006.
  • 2,700 school fires are started deliberately each year.

      Arsonists who target schools will often do it out of revenge. They may have been excluded from school or reprimanded for bad behaviour or poor attendance. They choose to take it personally.

      They are normally early teens who have a history of troublemaking. They're not normally known to the fire services, but nine times out of 10 they will be known to the police or other related agencies. They usually come from low-income areas where large groups of youngsters hang out. You can guarantee it will be a place with a high incidence of asbos.

      Arsonists will often start the fire in a bin attached to the outside of the school. They rarely bother to break into the school, because it takes time and increases the likelihood of being caught. They often say they never meant for the school to go up in flames, just for the bin to melt.

      Like any other serious crime, the driving force behind arson is alcohol or drugs. I don't think I've ever worked with a young arsonist who didn't smoke cannabis.

      Shane Blampied is the firesetter intervention manager at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service


      • Provide regular awareness sessions with local fire services.
      • Ban matches and lighters from school.
      • Keep flammable waste and wheelie bins away from school buildings or in secure storage areas.
      • Report all fires, no matter how small, to the fire brigade.
      • Consider referring all fire starters to fire service aversion schemes.
      • Ensure perimeters and school buildings are well maintained and secure.
        • Source: Adapted from Arson Prevention Bureau.

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