Park life must go on

21st March 1997 at 00:00
When a York primary school burned down, there was only one thing the staff could do: move the 224 pupils to another site. So that's what they did - over a weekend

Just after midnight on February 28, headteacher Andrew Calverley received a telephone call about his school. It was burning down.

By 12.20am he'd arrived at the scene - Park Grove Primary School in York - along with the fire brigade and the caretaker. By 12.45am the flames had taken a strong hold and began ripping through the ceiling into the teachers' centre on the second floor.

When, at 1.30am, the centre roof collapsed, flames three storeys high leapt towards the heavens throwing an orange glow on to the city skyline. Ninety firemen fought to save the imposing, Victorian building. At 3am there was a breakthrough and the flames began to die down. At this point it was clear that the Grade II listed school had been rendered unusable, perhaps forever.

Before dawn an emergency meeting was held between Mr Calverley and senior officers of the local education committee to decide what would happen to the 224 pupils and their school. The following day the local newspapers and news broadcasts alerted the public to the disaster and gave Mr Calverley the nickname "Inferno Head".

It was decided that the children would be taught in a block of a local comprehensive school, Queen Anne, starting on the following Tuesday. Immediate action was needed to alter and equip the classrooms with all the materials necessary for teaching primary-aged children.

At this point I should declare an interest: Andrew Calverley is my father. That weekend the creation of a new school was mainly down to him and his deputy, plus the headteacher of Queen Anne school, his caretaker, and the property services manager. How did they manage it in less than three days?

Enter the "Inferno Head Support Group": my mother, my sister, myself and my six-year-old brother. We adjusted our normal weekend activities to help my dad and to take over his household chores; we answered and made endless telephone calls; we shopped for school essentials, and borrowed and collected as many as we could. My six-year-old brother, Jim, was used as a model to calculate the correct "primary" height for coat hooks and towel dispensers. We didn't have time to do our homework or even stock our own fridge.

I'm sure the families of the teachers had a similarly hectic, exhausting weekend. Park Grove staff had lost 20 years' worth of books and equipment and children's work, along with their comfortable, familiar teaching environment.

What can we learn from this experience? First and most important, that although the school building has been burned down the school is still alive and thriving, as is shown by the numerous messages and letters of support on display at the new building and in the local press. A school does not revolve around its buildings but around its children, staff and parents. It is all about their relationships and their goals.

We all hope that "Parky" will return to the Groves area of York. When my father expressed this wish in his first assembly after the fire, a cheer rang around the hall. If the rebuilt school could emerge within the gutted framework of the existing building, everyone would be delighted. Then the largest fire in the city since York Minster burned down a decade ago will simply have been another chapter in the history of this enduring school.

* Benjamin Calverley is 15 and a pupil at Huntington School, York

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