Accentuate the positive

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Six months on, Alan Tootill charts his school's recovery from arson

Two-thirds of my school was destroyed in an arson attack in the early hours of March 18 (TES, March 24, 2006). This event and the recovery that has followed have stretched my leadership skills to the full.

The fire started around 1am and was under control about five and a half hours later. By morning the extent of the damage was clear: the whole of the main block had been destroyed. The joint-use leisure centre had been saved, as had our annexe building and a double science demountable building behind it. We had 19 classrooms left but had lost 45, including four ICT suites, six science labs, four technology rooms, three art rooms, our library resource centre, canteen and kitchen. We were devastated.

From the outset, one of our chief aims was to try to keep all our pupils together. The usual procedure is to distribute children to other schools where there is space. It's the cheapest option and would have been all too easy in Swansea, a city with thousands of surplus places. But it would have been a huge blow.

Our schools is arguably the most community-oriented in the city, with almost 100 per cent of our pupils living within a two-mile radius. Years 10 and 11 were back within 10 days of the fire, using the annexe and a few very temporary portable classrooms. At the same time we put together workpacks for our other pupils, supported by community-based events and staff in a number of locations.

We did not entirely manage to keep the school together in the short term.

It was too expensive to get enough modular classroom blocks and the delay in setting them up would have proved too great. Instead we put eight double-classroom blocks around our annexe during the Easter holidays, allowing Year 9 to return a week after the start of the summer term on May 8. By May 15, Year 11 was on study leave, so we could bring back Year 8 and, at the same time, we started Year 7 at a nearby site vacated for us at short notice by the local tertiary college. In the interim, we maintained our recreational events and provided a further workpack for those pupils still out of school. In August an extra two-storey modular block went up by the leisure centre so that the whole school was re-united last month.

It's been a herculean task for the school, LEA staff and the various contractors, and there is an obvious lesson here for leadership. The first thing we learned was to focus on the positive, which may seem strange, but in the midst of tragedy there was a great deal to be optimistic about. When we finally managed to return as a whole staff one week after the fire, we organised tours of the scene led by our site manager in small groups (we only had half a dozen hard hats). This meant staff could see clearly that nothing was left of their rooms and resources. Many later said this gave them a degree of closure on the tragedy.

The long-term positive effect was obvious - we would have a brand-new school - but the short and medium-term solutions were much less clear. The biggest short-term benefit was the response from the local community. We received innumerable expressions of sympathy and support, and offers of help. In the day-to-day running of a school it is easy to lose sight of the value placed on us by the community we serve. It is ironic that it takes a tragedy to open our eyes to the fact that we are genuinely liked and esteemed by our customers.

The second major positive factor has been the response to fund-raising.

We're in a relatively poor community, but some pound;10,000 has already been raised for "extras". Donations have ranged from fairy cakes baked by primary pupils to the pound;1,600 raised by the local fire crew through washing cars.

The final positive note came from the LEA. The director of education set up a critical incident team on that first morning and personally chaired almost daily meetings of the group for the first three weeks and the county's asset manager was deployed to project manage the many different aspects of the recovery operation.

One of the most difficult jobs is deciding what information to release when. It's important to maintain a sense of momentum without raising expectations too high. Initially any information to parents and pupils was via the media. However, we quickly established a page on the council's website where we posted updated information and answers to frequently asked questions. Our school council's suggestion that we use MSN to distribute information to pupils proved to be very effective.

Finally, I had to accept my limitations. It is tempting, but foolhardy, for the head to try to attend every meeting or have the final say in every decision. This story is far from over. The next two years will test our resolve, skills and teamwork to the full. Judging by what has been achieved, I believe that we can and will succeed.

Alan Tootill is head of Penyrheol comprehensive in Swansea

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