School arsonists: I'm a fire starter

Every year, hundreds of British schools are torched by child arsonists. But now imaginative attempts to combat the problem are producing stunning results. Malcolm Macalister Hall reports
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The Independent Online

This week, as every week, up to 20 schools in Britain will be hit by arson attacks. In many cases, it will be the schools' own pupils who light the fires, causing millions of pounds of damage and throwing classes into chaos.

It's a story they know only too well at Penyrheol Comprehensive School, near Swansea, where tomorrow morning, six weeks after their school was torched, hundreds of pupils will be studying in temporary buildings.

Alan Tootill received the news that every headteacher must dread in the bleak early hours of a Saturday in March, when he was woken by the telephone. "It was one of my assistant heads, who was at the school," says Mr Tootill. "He told me it was well and truly alight, and I think he had just watched the tower block section collapse. He said, 'Get ready for the fact that there will be nothing left of the main building'."

Penyrheol, the 1,000-pupil school where Mr Tootill has worked for nine years - the last four of them as head - was reduced to ashes. It was one of the biggest and most catastrophic school fires in the UK. At its height, 14 firecrews and 80 firefighters battled to save the school. When the flames were brought under control at 6am, 45 classrooms had been destroyed.

At the gates, pupils gathered, many of them in tears. "Unfortunately, our GCSE art exam took place the week that the fire happened. About 80 pupils had sat the exam, and all their work was destroyed. A lot of them were devastated," says Mr Tootill. Many staff, too, had lost work and teaching materials carefully assembled over decades. "There are people who have been teaching here for 30 years and they lost everything."

Three 17-year-olds were arrested following the fire, and are due to answer bail later this week. South Wales Police are treating the fire as suspicious.

Unfortunately for UK schools, this scenario is nothing new. Alongside all the other turmoil besetting education, there are now urgent warnings that the lives of schoolchildren and staff are increasingly endangered by a lack of proper fire prevention, coupled with a rise in daytime arson incidents.

The latest statistics, published by the Government in February, show that there were 840 deliberate fires in schools in 2004. Zurich Municipal, the leading schools insurer, puts the cost of school fires last year at £67m and says that three-quarters of them were lit deliberately.

Most are started by pupils, former pupils, or someone with a brother or sister at the school. Some 90,000 children each year are estimated to have their education disrupted by arson attacks. "Often they'll lose all their schoolwork," says Station Officer Ian Rawlings, co-ordinator of the West Midlands Arson Task Force. "If they're in their final years at school and coming up to exams, they can be devastated."

Officially, arson in schools is decreasing (down from 1,300 incidents in 1994, to the 840 in 2004 - or a current average of about 16 incidents a week). But many now think this is not the whole story. One of the leading UK organisations - the Arson Prevention Bureau (APB) - believes a "significant number" of minor incidents are going unreported.

"One of the reasons is that a lot of these fires may seem innocuous," says Malcolm Tarling, an APB spokesman. "Often a fire started in a wastepaper bin during what is little more than larking around is the precursor to a more serious attack. The figures mask the serious and growing problem of daytime fires. That's worrying, because it's not just putting property at risk, but also children and staff."

Like almost all individuals and organisations working in the field, the APB is campaigning for sprinkler systems to be installed. Many see it as extraordinary that there is no legal requirement for schools - even new ones - to be fitted with sprinklers.

"It's just a matter of time before a child dies," says David Wilson, professor of criminology at the University of Central England, who tomorrow evening co-presents a pull-no-punches investigation into arson in schools by the BBC's news programme for young people, Newsround. "We found that of something like 30,000 schools in England and Wales, fewer than 200 have sprinkler systems. Even schools that had been burned down, and which we were filming in, were being rebuilt without sprinklers."

Deliberate fires in schools are often the result of "mucking about" which gets out of hand. Children are naturally curious about fire. But Dr Jack Kennedy, a consultant in clinical and forensic psychology, says there is often a deeper reason. "For children, school is normally a focal point for their social world," he says. "So that's where they're going to be exposed to frustrations, to issues of tolerance, and anger. And because they place social controls on children, schools - unfortunately - often annoy them, cause them to be disgruntled, or to feel hard done by."

The result, says Dr Kennedy, can be starting a fire to vent anger, or exact "revenge" against the school, or against a teacher. "It's rare that there is not some sort of trail or story behind a fire at a school," he says, adding that the most common factors are deprived, neglectful, or abusive home backgrounds. "Fire may be like a friend to some of these children, the one thing they feel gives them some power."

Professor Wilson says: "For the investment of a box of matches or a lighter, they can get the adult world dancing to their tune."

There are many organisations working to reduce child arson figures. When Ian Rawlings, Professor Wilson's colleague in the arson task force, produced a booklet called Play It Safe and distributed it to 1,600 schools, arson incidents fell from 48 to 28 in a year.

There are imaginative projects, too: in June, Sparx, the task force's drama for children, with its anti-arson message, begins a six-week tour of the region's theatres. In London, an independent assessment of the London Fire Brigade's juvenile firesetters' intervention scheme (home visits and a video which deglamorises fire) found 93 per cent of young firestarters had stopped.

Mr Tootill, his staff, and education officials have made astonishing progress. In the four days after the fire, in borrowed classrooms at nearby schools, staff recreated all their lost teaching materials. "It was a huge, unbelievable job," says Mr Tootill.

The community rallied round: local people and pupils have raised £8,000 in six weeks. Within 10 days, 400 pupils were back in class, in temporary classrooms - more of which have been brought in - and an annexe which survived the blaze. Another 200 children restart school tomorrow. Mr Tootill is looking ahead to the rebuilding. "I'm trying to stay focused on that. Fingers crossed, we'll get a better school out of all this, in the end," he says.

'Newsround Investigates: Arson' is on BBC1 tomorrow at 4.55pm

THE ARSONIST, 16

'I felt really mad with my family, so I lit a fire. But it didn't make it feel any better'

"Me and my friends were at the playground and I was having a really bad day. I was getting really angry and just, like, without thinking I got a piece of paper and set a fire. Well, I did a couple of fires, one in the toilets and one outside the school. I was angry about things about my family and all of that. They're not here.

In the toilets there was a bin, and I burned that. And then I went out and went to the playground again and got a paper and asked someone for a lighter or something and someone gave me some matches. And I just burned it. And all of the school watched.

I went to my form room and I looked from the window - a big bush had caught fire, and it went further, nearly to the nearby shop. But it didn't make me feel better - it made me feel really, really bad, and then after that I wished to myself I'd never done it. But I love fire, basically. I just love it. I don't know why.

I haven't had any help, no. I got through it by myself. I'll never touch fire again. I just got really bad feelings when I did it. They kicked me out of that school straightaway. But I'm on the good route now. I like sorting my stuff out. I'm doing my GCSEs."