On Thursday, the government launched a major new consultation on building design for fire safety in schools that will have a significant impact on the future of pupil safety and education.

The government is proposing to make sprinklers mandatory in new schools above 11m, special education needs schools and boarding schools. Zurich has long called for mandatory sprinklers in all new and major refurbished schools, regardless of the building's height.

Commenting on the government proposals to make sprinklers mandatory in all schools over 11m in height, Tilden Watson, Head of Education at leading school insurer Zurich Municipal, said:

"The government's proposals are a step in the right direction but still leave the vast majority of schools and pupils exposed to blazes.

"By limiting sprinklers to schools above 11m, the government is effectively writing off a significant proportion of the school estate. This will create a two-tier system of safety, which is arbitrary and ill-thought through.

"As predominantly single-story buildings, primary schools will be hardest hit, especially as they already suffer nearly twice the rate of blazes as secondary schools.

"Pupil safety and education will become a lottery based on school height. Parents are likely to be concerned that their children's lives are being measured in metres."

He added: "School fires cause major disruption to children's education, with repairs leading to months or even years of upheaval. They also result in the loss of spaces which local communities rely on out of school hours. Unless Ministers bring England into line with other parts of the UK, where sprinklers are mandatory, large fires will continue to blight children's education, already severely disrupted by the pandemic, and put lives at risk."

Analysis by Zurich of Home Office data covering all 44 fire authorities in England from April 2015 and April 2020 found that:

  • School fires have destroyed the equivalent of 1,100 classrooms in the last five years. More than 74,000 square metres, an area equivalent to 10 football pitches.
  • Fire crews have been called to tackle 2,300 school blazes in England, which completely gutted 47 primary and secondary school buildings, and seriously damaged 230 others.
  • Between April 2015 and April 2020, 1,467 primary schools and 834 secondary schools were hit by blazes. Just two per cent of these schools were fitted with sprinklers.

Zurich estimates the average repair bill for large fires alone is £2.9m, with some fires costing up to £20m. Data from inspections carried out by Zurich Municipal - which insures roughly half of all schools in the UK - shows:

  • Of more than 1,000 school inspections carried out by Zurich, 66% were rated as having 'poor' fixed fire protection systems, such as sprinklers, which are proven to significantly reduce the damage caused by fire.
  • Just 14% were rated 'good' or 'excellent'.
  • A further quarter (24%) were judged 'poor' for fire detection measures, such as smoke detectors and fire alarms