The findings from the study, which the insurer call the ‘most comprehensive […] to date’, came from analysing data on all English schools, including personal inspections of over 1,000 primary and secondary schools. It said that there was a ‘perfect storm’ of risky buildings and ‘poor fire detection and prevention measures’, with 26,866 schools analysed and the average fire risk ‘almost double that of non-residential buildings’.

Despite there being a ‘greater risk of a fire starting’, inspections by the insurer found that 66% of schools lack ‘adequate fixed fire protection measures’ such as sprinklers, while 24% were rated ‘poor’ for fire detection’. Additionally, firefighters have been called to ‘nearly 2,000’ school fires in the last three years, with the insurer and other organisations calling for sprinklers to be mandatory in English schools as part of the government’s £1bn school rebuilding programme.

The average school posed a fire risk 1.7 times greater than non residential buildings, with Zurich’s model giving schools a fire risk score of 0.58 compared to non residential buildings’ score of 0.33. In comparison to 2.9m non household properties, schools were ‘three times more likely’ to be in the high fire risk category, with 33,000 fires from the last six years analysed ‘to identify factors that increase the likelihood of a blaze’, and a fire risk score produced.

Factors for calculating this consisted of listed status, the presence of cooking equipment and the building’s size, with Zurich adding that ‘despite being far riskier than average’ in terms of fire, many schools ‘also lack the equipment needed to prevent small fires becoming major disasters’. Out of the inspections, only 14% of the schools were rated good or excellent by Zurich, with the leading causes of fires including ‘malfunctioning appliances or equipment, faulty electrics, arson and kitchen’ fires.

Larger school fires cost an average of £2.8m to repair, ‘and in some cases over’ £20m, while bigger and older schools – such as those with canteens, or secondary schools that have ‘more complex and dangerous equipment – were ‘identified as particularly at risk’, with a correlation between poor Ofsted ratings and a ‘greater risk of fire’ also seen in the analysis.

Zurich’s findings have led it to launch a parliamentary petition (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/549558) urging MPs to ‘change the law on sprinklers in schools’, as while they are compulsory in ‘all new major or refurbished’ school buildings in Scotland and Wales, ‘this is not the case in England’ where ‘in fact, they are fitted in fewer than one in six new schools’. Its analysis has found that over 7m pupils at primary and secondary schools are taught in the 58% of buildings that are a ‘high fire risk’.

The insurer noted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently pledged £1.56bn to fund a school rebuilding and repair programme over the next ten years, and it estimates that the repair costs for school fires could reach £320m in that time, a ‘significant portion’ of the investment pledged. As a result, it said it wants the government to ‘ring-fence’ some of this to ‘improve the resilience of schools at high risk of fire’.

With insurers working closely with schools to help them manage fire risks, ‘the installation of sprinklers minimise the dangers from the outset’. Zurich also gave a case study example of sprinklers saving a school in Wales from a fire, with Connah’s Quay High School in Flintshire suffering a ‘potentially disastrous blaze when a laser-cutter caught fire’, forcing 1,000 pupils to be evacuated at lunchtime when the fire broke out in June 2019.

The school’s sprinkler system ‘quickly extinguished the fire and contained the damage to a single room allowing pupils to return the next day’, with school business manager Emma Dale stating: ‘Without sprinklers, the damage could have been devastating. Sprinklers are a cost saving measure, not an expense. They save the cost of rebuilding and repairing schools, and can pay for themselves in lower insurance premiums.’

In turn, North Wales Fire and Rescue Service said at the time that ‘this incident clearly highlights the importance of sprinklers in helping to avoid the spread of fire’. Tilden Watson, Zurich Municipal’s head of education, stated: ‘An alarming number of school buildings pose a high fire risk - yet many are poorly protected against a potential blaze. Unless Ministers bring England into line with other parts of the UK, where sprinklers are mandatory, large fires will continue to blight schools.

‘This is harming children’s education and putting lives at risk. Burnt out schools and classrooms 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. As well as protecting pupils, sprinklers drastically reduce the extent of damage when there is a blaze, often confining the fire to a single room.

‘This gets children back into schools and classrooms quicker as well as saving taxpayers’ money. Countless young people have already had their schooling upended by the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot allow school fires to further disrupt young people’s education, and jeopardise their futures. It costs far more to repair fire-ravaged schools than it does to install sprinklers. Even so, cash strapped schools cannot be expected to pick up the bill.

‘The government’s COVID-19 investment is a critical opportunity to ensure schools are more resilient to fire. Unless minsters change the law on sprinklers, much of this funding will be wasted on repairing the fire damage that sprinklers could have easily prevented. The government should also gather and disclose more data on school fires to help fully understand the risks they pose and their wider financial and social impacts.’

Nick Coombe, protection vice chair and building safety programme lead for the National Fire Chiefs Council, commented: ‘The case for sprinklers is compelling. Of almost 1,000 fires over five years in buildings where sprinklers were fitted, our research found they controlled or extinguished blazes in 99% of cases. We want to see a greater inclusion of automatic fire suppression systems (AFSS), including sprinklers, across the built environment.

‘Sprinklers can dramatically reduce fire damage, making the reopening of a school much easier. This not only minimises the disruption to a pupil’s education, but also the impact on their family, the community and the wider education establishment.’