Burnt out

20th December 2002 at 00:00
When Ann Macdonald's school was destroyed by arsonists she didn't think things could get any worse. Now the site is up for sale and a good school will close. Harvey McGavin tells a story of our times

The board games on her bookcase sum up Ann Macdonald's predicament: she is the headteacher of an improving school that is about to be closed. Perhaps she could challenge the decision-makers to a game of Stop Being So Mean! or gather round her staff for a morale boosting session of Positive Thinking. And the question Who Dunnit? was what everyone was asking on the morning of November 24, 2000.

The night before, Beech Down school in Basingstoke, Hampshire, had been razed by arsonists. Two years later, a couple of small annexes are all that's left of the original buildings. The word "Welcome" is still painted on the path but the coloured footsteps now lead to a fenced-off rectangle of charred ground. Tiled areas indicate where the toilets used to be and weeds poke through the old central courtyard. It's a sorry sight.

It was seven o'clock in the evening when Ann Macdonald got the call telling her there was a serious fire at her school. She arrived to find other members of staff, parents and pupils watching the flames light up the night sky. There was nothing firefighters could do to stop the blaze spreading quickly through the single-storey 1970s building. The crowd just stood in the driveway, water from the firemen's hoses lapping over their feet, watching it burn. "We couldn't get too close," says Ms Macdonald. "There were flames pouring out of the windows. You could hear the boilers exploding. It was as if they were crying out in pain, banging and crashing. It was like listening to the school dying."

The following day, staff assembled in the church hall next door, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, wondering what to do. "We were in shock really. It was like we were grieving. In three hours we had seen everything we had worked for go up in flames." One teacher lost her wedding photographs and those of her daughter, mother and grandmother which she had been using to prepare a project. Virtually the only things to survive were some of the children's records, which had been stored in a metal filing cabinet.

At first the county council wanted to split up the school and send groups of children and teachers into other schools temporarily. Ms Macdonald said she would resign if they forced her to do that; the idea of suddenly being separated and dropped into a strange environment was too much to bear. The authorities relented and let the school have time off. Within a week they were moved into temporary classrooms, corralled in a circle on part of the school's playing field. Conditions were basic: each child had an exercise book, a pencil, a desk and a chair. "Luckily it was nearly Christmas so I said to the staff, 'forget the curriculum, let's just focus on that'."

Since arriving at the school in 1999, Ann Macdonald had led it out of serious weaknesses. The county council acknowledged it was an effective school and in 2001 it was given an achievement award from the Department for Education. She admits the prospect of starting again was exciting. "It wasn't a nice building and I thought, 'Well at least we'll get a new one'."

She ordered interactive whiteboards for all the classrooms. A landscape gardener was brought in to brighten up the area in between the temporary classrooms with small raised flowerbeds (the school won prizes two years running in the Basingstoke in Bloom competition). A beech tree was planted, and the school's motto of "growing together" was reflected in new names for the year groups of Little Oaks, Pines and Maples.

Now all these young children are being uprooted again. The first sign that the future of the school might not be assured came in January this year, when the council architect phoned to say he would be coming to discuss the new building, but never turned up. Parents began campaigning to save the school, which serves Brighton Hill, a deprived estate where there are problems with drugs, underage drinking and violence. For children who come from troubled family backgrounds, Beech Down is a refuge. It is the only primary school in north Hampshire with specialist provision for educational and behavioural difficulties and the only one in the county to employ a specialist play therapist. Linda Sennitt comes in every afternoon to work with children with anger management or emotional problems.

The council education policy review committee voted to have the school rebuilt, but the executive member for education, Don Allen, did not follow their recommendation. Instead, he decided to close Beech Down, citing surplus places in the area. Land for new houses within commuting distance of London is at a premium and Beech Down's six acres have been valued at pound;4.5 million. The authority has also received a pound;2.5 million insurance payout and plans to spend the combined proceeds on expanding and improving other schools nearby. St Mark's C of E will gain an extra form of entry and Hatch Warren will have six temporary classrooms replaced by permanent buildings.

While he acknowledges school closures are always disruptive, Don Allen says Beech Down will not be the last. Hampshire is having to deal with a 10 per cent reduction in primary age children between 1997 and 2007 and a review of places in the area was inevitable. "We are going to have to close a number of good schools over the next few years, simply because we don't have the kids to fill them," he predicts. "My role is to take decisions which are strategically sound and influence what happens in the next 20 years, rather than the next 20 days or 20 months."

Twenty months is about how long Beech Down has to go until its official closure date of August 31 2004. Meanwhile, staff and pupils are coming to terms with the finality of that date, exactly 20 years after the school was established. "The staff have all been fantastic," says Ann Macdonald. "I have said to them, 'you have to look for jobs. We want to keep the children's education going but you mustn't jeopardise your careers'." The school roll has shrunk from 250 at the time of the fire to 108 today. And small classes - the silver lining of Beech Down's impending closure - are getting smaller all the time. Staff have been told they will be employed until the school shuts, but those who leave will not be replaced. "Natural wastage," reflects Ms Macdonald, "a horrible expression."

It has been a steep learning curve. "You don't learn how to cope with a thing like this when you train as a teacher." On the other hand, she says:

"I have learned that democracy doesn't mean a thing. I have learned how politics works and I am not very impressed by it. No one believed we would close until the last minute. Everyone was thinking, 'they can't close us'. The worst time was after we found out it would definitely happen. People were low that week, it was really sad. It was like we had lost the school twice."

As for Who Dunnit, two 14-year-old local boys were charged with arson. On the request of their defence solicitors, they were tried separately at Winchester crown court in September. Each blamed the other and both were acquitted. In the end, you can't help feeling the only people being punished for their actions are the staff and children of Beech Down school.

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