How we did it

Vivienne Clark recalls the year her school burnt down.

The call to tell me the school was on fire came at 5am on Saturday May 12 last year. I shot out of bed and drove straight down there.

Some youths had been messing about on the school site; two of them had set fire to a wheelie bin and left it against a wall. When I arrived, the school was burning. It's a primary school with 200 pupils in a small village. A lot of pupils, parents and staff saw the blaze - I still don't know the emotional impact of that, but it was a blessing that no one was in the building.

By 7am, reporters and television crews were there. The local authority's critical incident team also got there quickly. The loss assessor was there by mid-morning, and wrote the school off within 20 minutes - there was nothing left to save. The most challenging thing was to maintain contact with people. All personal details had gone up in flames, so we walked around the streets to contact parents, put up messages in the village and used local radio. We also set up a phone line in the secretary's house.

After some meetings, it was decided that the school would be rebuilt and that children would be accommodated in temporary classrooms in the meantime. But the children had to be off for a time, and this created childcare problems for many parents. Communication was vital, and we needed parents on our side.

We reopened on June 18, after just five weeks. The fire really galvanised the community. Local schools made donations towards resources and furniture. We had letters from old ladies, and local pubs raised hundreds of pounds.

The loss of documentation has been a huge problem. It affected staff development too because threshold assessments were burnt. I brought in a counsellor to talk to staff about their feelings and what to look out for in the children. Children were distraught at losing their work, and some parents reported upsets at home. I didn't want staff off with stress, but by October there had been a dip in staff morale. I tried to prioritise and deal with what was most important, and I realised that if I went off sick with stress, that would be no good to anyone. As head, I had to be the one who was there when the staff were down, but also to realise that I couldn't do everything.

The fire had such an impact on all aspects of school life, and I've had to develop a lot of new leadership and management skills. But we are starting afresh. The design and planning for the new school is well under way, and we're due to move in next Easter. We'll have a cutting-edge school for the 21st century, and the idea of that keeps us going.

In April this year, two youths aged 14 and 15 were sentenced at Preston Crown Court to two-year supervision and reparation orders after pleading guilty to arson.Vivienne Clark is head of Brindle Gregson Lane primary school in Hoghton, near Preston.Interview by Martin Whittaker

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