After the school burned down

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Beaten, bruised but still standing: that is how Strathburn Primary school feels since the February night fire razed the building to the ground, destroying all but a music trophy. Judy Mackie reports on the effort involved in raising it from the ashes.

A phoenix, being a mythical creature, could take any form we care to imagine. To the 35 staff and 450 pupils of Strathburn Primary, Inverurie, their phoenix will forever be a blackened, battered trophy - the tarnished but triumphant sole survivor of the fire that destroyed the fabric of their school.

Rescued from the smouldering rubble by headteacher Harry Burnett, the once sparkling silver trophy, awarded by the Music Society to the Strathburn Junior choir, may be indecipherable now but it carries a symbolic message for the school community: "beaten, bruised, but still standing".

It is a message that has carried them all through weeks of strangeness as emotions in the aftermath of the fire in early February have changed from disbelief and grief, to anger, determination and recently to joy, as plans of a bigger, better school building have been unveiled by Aberdeenshire Council. But it can never over-write the deeply etched memories of the dreadful night when Strathburn burned to the ground.

For Mr Burnett, head since 1991, the ordeal began with a call from Grampian Police, just after midnight on Friday February 2.

"It was the call every headteacher must dread: 'Your school is ablaze.' When I arrived, there were fire engines and a lot of onlookers but the scene was strangely quiet. Initially, I thought we were going to lose a wing of the school and I remember looking at my burning office and thinking 'I wonder if they'll let me pop in and take a few things off the shelf.' I had so many personal belongings I wanted to rescue.

"But then the flames flew across under the ceiling tiles and by 3am the entire school was a huge bonfire I an unbelievable sight. By four o'clock, it was totally destroyed."

He is visibly affected by the recollection. He admits to speaking far more quickly these days, he sleeps for only brief periods and his patience is shorter than it used to be. But his professionalism has remained intact.

"All sorts of emotions ran through my mind at the time - people were offering their condolences and it was like dealing with a death in the family. But I had to be detached and think about what was going to happen the next day."

Another person who had to curb his grief to cope with the crisis was John Finnie, Aberdeenshire Council education department's head of service (quality development) and a former Strathburn headteacher (1982-90).

"I heard about the fire at 2.30am and I couldn't take it in. The whole school had gone and in its place was a pile of smoking rubble. I had to suspend my personal feelings. If I'd been in touch with my true emotions at that point, I wouldn't have been able to function. I saw grown men on the street in tears. People were totally devastated."

Ironically, he had in his car the results of an HMI report, which he had planned to take to Strathburn later that day. The highly positive report commented on the strong school ethos and good supply and organisation of resources.

The cause of the fire was already being speculated on by those at the scene. As a result of the subsequent police investigation, two teenagers, believed to be unconnected with the town, have been charged with wilful fire-raising and a court hearing is expected in the autumn.

In the early hours, school board chairman John Metcalf was alerted by the smell of smoke, but had no idea of the disaster affecting the school attended by his daughters Victoria (P2) and Rachael (P5). "It wasn't until around 5,30am that the phone calls began between staff and parents who had heard the news from others or from the radio.

"When I got there, I saw young people standing around, very, very upset. It may be a schoolboy fantasy that your school burns down, but in reality it's something no one would ever wish for.

"I saw charred remnants of sports jerseys and half-burned books with children's handwriting. Scraps of schoolwork were blowing around neighbouring gardens. It was terrible."

Several of the class teachers were alerted by telephone calls from Mr Burnett.

"My first thought," says (subject teacher) Sheila Dingwall, "was that I'd better wear an old fleece and take some cleaning things because there was going to be a real mess to clear up. I couldn't believe there would be nothing left."

The teaching staff - some of whom have been working for more than 20 years - lost every single resource they had gathered throughout their career. Teaching notes, books, video tapes, posters, class projects, sports equipment, musical instruments, toys for the nursery school's teddy bears' picnic, computers, library books, artwork, paper records, professional qualification certificates - all were lost to the blaze.

So were personal items, such as family photographs. One teacher, who had been about to go off on maternity leave, was distraught at losing the ultrasound scan photographs of her baby, which she had put in her desk diary for safekeeping.

Mercifully, all the electronic records were saved, thanks to the foresight of school secretary Agnes Gillan, who carried back-up discs in her bag.

Primary 7 pupil Emily Connon and her sister Bethany, in P3, knew that Friday wasn't an ordinary schoolday when they heard their mother, Fiona, talking quietly on the telephone early in the morning. They were shocked but the tragedy didn't fully hit home until a blizzard struck the day after the fire and the girls' boots were nowhere to be found.

"They had been left in school. It was such a little thing, but it reduced us all to tears," recalls Ms Connon. "Emily said: 'Mummy, my school is part of my life.' " Ms Connon, who is chair of the parent-teacher association, has happy memories of Strathburn's 20th anniversary in 1997, when a granite stone - which is still standing - was laid in the school garden and children celebrated with a party and balloon races.

"It has always been a close-knit school. We complained about the lack of space, but we all loved the place," she says.

While other people were just beginning the day, Mr Burnett was hoping to snatch a couple of hours of sleep to prepare him for the emergency planning ahead. But the telephone rang and the first of a relentless series of media calls requested an interview for the local radio station. There would be no sleep for him until the following night - and even then it would last only three hours. In the days and weeks that have followed, his racing brain has lead him to rise early to write and review endless lists of myriad actions required to raise a school from the ashes.

That morning, the local sports centre provided a haven for the Strathburn Primary staff, as well as a base for an emergency task force set up by Mr Finnie. Having managed the aftermath of a fire at Glashieburn Primary school, Aberdeen, in the early 1990s, he knew who to assign to the team. The education authority had also had recent crisis management experience following a fire at Port Erroll Primary, in Cruden Bay, in April 2000.

By 10am, Mr Finnie and Mr Burnett, school board representatives, education area officers and various local authority officers (representing finance, planning, health and safety, catering, information technology and communication) were identifying their personal tasks and responsibilities. By 1pm, they had a list of suggested solutions for getting Strathburn Primary up and running again as quickly as possible.

By the following Tuesday, they had refined their ideas to form a short-term three-site solution involving Kellands Primary, Inverurie Academy and the local authority-owned Wyness Hall, which are all within half a mile of each other. This was presented to more than 500 parents from the affected schools at a public meeting the following evening.

Implementing the plan involved great personal and professional effort and has been supplemented by generous gestures of practical and financial support from businesses, individuals, voluntary organisations, social clubs and other schools and local authorities.

Incredibly, Strathburn Primary was back in business on Tuesday February 19. With many local schools closed in the previous week due to the severe weather, the Strathburn children comparatively missed only three days of teaching. To the community, it was an amazing achievement.

"We were very impressed with how quickly things were handled by the school and the local authority, and by the way in which they communicated with parents at every stage," says John Metcalf.

The day before school began again, the first post-fire assembly was held at the sports complex. It was another surreal experience for Mr Burnett, who watched as hundreds of parents accompanied their children into the building.

"We were concerned the assembly might become too emotional, but the teachers met their classes beforehand and quickly got them back into routine, while I addressed the parents. The children came in - little ones first - and they were absolutely brilliant. I showed them our battered trophy and used it to symbolise our situation. We talked about next steps and then said 'See you tomorrow'."

None of the children could have suspected the effort that had gone into ensuring they would arrive at their new school sites safely and on time, which is a key issue in the emergency plan. Education staff had worked late into the previous Friday evening, organising letters for parents regarding transport arrangements and escort duties. Then on the Monday, the PTA machine whirred into action, with countless offers of help to see the children safely from the buses - formerly used only by the Inverurie Academy - into school.

Other issues, including catering, break times and toilets, had also been carefully addressed. Regimental timing, staggered meal times and compression of the school day were key to preventing chaos and distress.

Inevitably, there have been problems, and staff and pupils from all the schools are suffering the stresses of sharing limited space and facilities and being apart from the rest of their colleagues and schoolmates. Mr Burnett's personal bugbear has been not being able to be in three places at once. He has been based temporarily at St Andrew's Special School in Inverurie, where his wife, Jacqueline, is headteacher. ("She has been such a tremendous support to me, he says.") He says he is extremely proud of the way his staff and pupils have coped and now, in the light of an announcement by Aberdeenshire Council's education department, he and Mr Finnie are able to promise them a brighter future. "The long-term plans are for a new and larger school, fit for the 21st century, to be rebuilt on the old site by August 2002," says Mr Finnie.

"The interim solution, which will see us through the next 15 months," adds Mr Burnett, "is to remain more or less where we are at present, although measures have been taken to create more space at Kellands and Wyness Hall. This is being seen generally as the simplest and most efficient way of going forward.

"We're all delighted with the plans for the new school and we're very much looking forward to next year."


Within a week following the fire at Strathburn Primary, Wyness Hall in Inverurie had been converted from a concrete-walled occasional bowling venue to a well-appointed school for Primaries 3, 4 and 5, thanks to fast-track planning by Aberdeenshire Council's property department and round-the-clock conversion work by a local building firm.

Inverurie Academy, according to Mr Burnett and Mr Finnie, "moved heaven and earth" to accommodate the four P6 and P7 classes in two units they had been using during a science lab refurbishment.

With the school's blessing, the local authority installed fencing around the huts to form a play area and laid alternative pathways to the school so that the young children would not be overwhelmed by mixing with the older academy pupils.

Room was made for Strathburn's 120 P1 and P2 pupils at Kellands Primary school. The staff worked quickly to move their classes into smaller areas, temporarily converting their kitchen and learning support areas into teaching spaces for their guests.

Kellands Nursery also "budged up" for the extra 20 morning and 20 afternoon nursery children.

Strathburn's catering and ancillary staff were divided over all three sites, where their familiar faces have been welcomed by the children, and janitor Ernie Moir was provided with an authority van to move equipment and materials between the schools.

"We're extremely grateful for all the help and support we've received from our host schools. They've been wonderful," says Mr Burnett.

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