Phoenix rises from the ashes

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Outside Landywood school's office, a workman stands waist-deep in a muddy hole, surrounded by piles of rubble. The school bursar clicks her tongue and leans to look out of the window. "I just hope they don't cut through my broadband connection again," she says. Her words are muffled by the roar of an excavator.

Much of Landywood primary, in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, resembles a building site. Two weeks ago, as Year 6 pupils began their Sats tests, a fire spread across the school roof.

It started in a tar-boiler being used by workmen to resurface the roof. By the time the head's attention was drawn to the blaze, flames were 10 feet high, and spreading faster than he could run.

He raised the alarm, and within two minutes all 180 pupils were safely evacuated. By this stage, the flames were 50ft high, and a 600ft plume of smoke could be seen from 30 miles away. The school's library, art room and computer suite were all destroyed, along with six classrooms.

Alan Stockley, school head, says: "It was frightening. If you are an eight-year-old child, seeing the roof on fire is really going to burn into your memory."

Year 6 pupil Robyn Steadman agreed. "I didn't sleep at all the night after the fire," she said. "I couldn't close my eyes, because I just kept picturing the school on fire."

The fire happened on a Thursday. By Monday, pupils were back in school, and staff were working to replenish storerooms. Publishers Scholastic Books donated several boxes of textbooks, while Walsall football club offered afternoon coaching sessions to try to distract pupils from the damage.

In the head's office, a teaching assistant unwraps box after box of new books. Another teaching assistant staggers past under a pile of pink exercise books. She stops to apologise: "I have sciatica. Otherwise I'd be carrying trolleys and boxes."

She is transferring resources to four modern mobile classrooms, set up while work begins on a permanent replacement building, provisionally named the Phoenix Block. For the past two weeks, Years 4 to 6 have been taught in any spare space available: storerooms, the gym, the staffroom.

Holly Plaza, a Year 5 teacher, has pasted children's drawings up in the staffroom, transforming it into a classroom.

"It's actually handy being here," she says cheerily. "We have hot water if I want to make a drink, and the kids can put their food in the fridge."

Year 6 pupils, meanwhile, have taken over the reception play area.

Eleven-year-old Emma Davies says: "I was worried we'd have to sit on small chairs, and learn the alphabet and count to 10."

But Liz Thacker, Year 6 teacher, will not let them off so lightly. Instead, pupils will resit their interrupted Sats exams. "We want them to do some tests," Mrs Thacker says. "Right now, they associate tests with something terrible happening. That can stay with you all through secondary school, and tests are bad enough anyway."

It is a prospect that does not enthuse Robyn Steadman. "All our revision books were destroyed in the fire, so we have nothing to revise from," she says.

"But at least the teachers won't say what they said last time. One of us asked, 'What if something happens during Sats?' The teacher said, 'What do you think will happen - there'll be a fire?' "



* Annual cost of fire in British schools:

2000 - pound;65 million

2001 - pound;93m

2002 - pound;96.6m

2003 - pound;73.4m

2004 - pound;83m

* Approximately 25 per cent of all major fires in buildings occur in schools. More than 70 per cent of fires in schools are started deliberately.

* The 2004 cost of fire in schools, pound;83m, is equivalent to building 84 new primary schools or employing 2,578 teachers.

* Only 150 of 28,000 British schools are fitted with sprinklers.

* On average, three schools a day in the UK experience a fire. The costs involved have risen by more than 135 per cent in the past 10 years.

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