Up in smoke

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Arsonists caused pound;65 million-worth of damage to schools last year. Matthew Brown talks to one teacher whose school was burnt down and, overleaf, an insurer describes a scheme to tackle the menace

This is it, this bit here," says Matthew Dampier, pointing to a small area of blackened ground beneath his feet. "This was my classroom, my first ever classroom." He is standing to one side of what looks like a discarded building site, an empty concrete space about 50 metres square, surrounded by the kind of high metal fence builders use to keep children out.

A few smudged red floor tiles lie dislodged amid the rubble, their edges charred and curled. The faint, grubby outlines of old walls betray the shapes of rooms that once made a school - libraries, classrooms, offices - erased in a single night of flames.

The evening of Thursday November 23 last year was not a happy one for Beech Down primary school in Basingstoke, where 31-year-old Matthew Dampier is in his first year as a fully qualified teacher. Mr Dampier - who lives 30 miles away - received a phone call at about 8.30 that night from Anna Young, a senior member of staff and Mr Dampier's mentor throughout his NQT year. "Matthew, the school's on fire," she said. "Don't come in now, just go and have a strong drink."

By the time he arrived next morning the school's main building was reduced to a smouldering, smelly mass. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I had visualised the school being on fire and thought it would be a bit charred around the edges. But it was gone. The walls had fallen in, the roof had collapsed; it was just grey and black. Everything looked like it had melted."

A typical "nothing special" 1970s building, the school was open-plan. The fire, allegedly started by a group of teenagers, spread rapidly, aided by the lack of fire doors and a couple of old gas boilers that were due to be replaced. When the firefighters arrived just half an hour later, the flames were already too intense, and the building couldn't be saved.

The next day, as the media and demolition men arrived, teachers, pupils and parents stood around the smoky rubble and tried to take it in. "There were a few tears," says Mr Dampier, who teaches a combined Year 56 class. "We were all a bit shellshocked."

And then it hit him. "I realised I had lost all my resources and a lot of personal effects - and everyone else had too," he says. "I lost all my lesson plans and notes, everything I'd built up over four years at college and my first year at the school. I realised it wasn't the building that mattered really, it was the resources - things you collect, stuff that can't be bought. It was devastating."

One of those resources was the Big Picture from Friday magazine, pinned up outside Mr Dampier's classroom alongside questions based on Ted Wragg's notes. "The kids loved it," he says. "And I felt it helped with general knowledge in an ever more static, stodgy and staid curriculum." But his collection had gone up in flames, along with his college artwork and sketch books, which he'd also used as teaching aids.

"In my NQT year I went a bit resource-silly and had built up quite a bit," he says. "Now it's all gone." One teacher lost her wedding photos and members of staff each lost up to pound;600-worth of personal belongings.

After the initial excitement, the children began to understand the possible consequences of the fire. Ten-year-old Jack Fry, whose dad is a firefighter, lost all his Horrible History and Horrible Science books. "I was scared because I didn't know what was going to happen," he says. "I thought I might have to go to a different school."

Yet, after only one week off, all the children were back in lessons by the first week in December. Classes were held in a church and the few outlying office blocks that hadn't been affected, and the school buckled down to preparing its Christmas play. "There was a bit of a Second World War spirit for a while," says Mr Dampier.

Within three weeks the school was fully functioning again, back on its own grounds, in purpose-built portable classrooms sent on lorries from Southampton by Hampshire LEA. The green, prefabricated buildings were put up in double-quick time on the side of the playing field. Wires were buried beneath the turf, tarmac paths laid and a small tree planted. There's even a main hall and a kitchen, although there's no men's toilet for Mr Dampier, the only male teacher.

But having a room to teach in doesn't mean everything is suddenly back to normal. The school lost pound;500,000-worth of equipment, including TVs, photocopiers and computers, and all but a few filing cabinets'-worth of records, not to mention the all-important books, paper, pens and desks. Two months later, the toll is still being counted.

"Every day I remember some books or something and think, 'Oh no, they were in my classroom too'," says Mr Dampier. "Only when I started to teach again did I realise how big an effect it has had. I've had to juggle plans and pick out subjects that don't necessarily need a lot of resources."

He's even had to adapt his style of teaching to suit the new circumstances. "I'm not used to chalk and talk," he says. "I'm used to having resources there and being very hands-on. I find standing at the front thinking on my feet quite difficult. But I have to do more of it now."

Other schools have helped by sharing libraries and allowing Beech Down's teachers to use their photocopiers and other equipment. And every day the school's tiny reception area is bulging with a new delivery of equipment - The TES sent Mr Dampier a box of books and copies of Friday magazine.

"Of course some things can't be replaced," says head Ann Macdonald. "But we should be totally up and running again by the end of this term."

For Mrs Macdonald, the fire was particularly galling. When she was appointed two years ago, Beech Down was close to going into special measures. Most of the school's 250 pupils come from an estate described by Mr Dampier as "a difficult area, with nothing much there". Sats scores were at rock bottom, and Ofsted had it under close watch.

"Last year was about the school working to pull itself out," says Mr Dampier. And it did. Sats for numeracy rose, English and science scores were higher, and by June 2000 the school had already met its Sats targets for 2001. Last September, Ofsted deemed the school satisfactory throughout.

"The turnaround was amazing," says Mr Dampier. "We worked the kids really hard. They did some good work and started to have a sense of ownership about it."

Now, all their coursework has gone, folders of assessments have been destroyed and those ticks in boxes that prove a school is doing the right things have gone up in smoke. Ofsted is due again later this year. "We just have to be realistic," says Mr Dampier. "They're not going to say, 'Oh, there, there, you've had a fire'. We just have to start again and get on with it."

So that's what they've done, teachers and pupils alike. Not that it's all doom and gloom. The school expects to have a new, permanent building in two years' time, costingpound;1.5 million. And Mr Dampier, for one, has not lost his sense of humour.

"After surviving a gruelling four-year training programme, and a tiring NQT year, the last thing I needed before Christmas was to lose everything," he says. "It's a bit corny, but you could say I've had a baptism of fire."


If Hampshire local education authority seems surprisingly well prepared for arson attacks, it's not without good reason. The Arson Prevention Bureau, set up by the Home Office in 1991, estimates that schools suffered around pound;65 million-worth of damage from arson in 2000.

"It's a big problem," says Karen Haestier, a project manager at the APB. "Schools are more likely than any other type of building to suffer a malicious fire."

Research by the APB in 1998 found that the number of arson attacks on schools was running at 1,000 to 1,400 each year. Between 65 and 75 per cent of all fires in schools are classified as malicious.

It also found that large school fires were not restricted to particular areas - recent attacks have been in places as diverse as London, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Perth and Kinross. Fires in schools are most likely to be started by pupils, former pupils, their friends, or others with knowledge of the school.

Such is the extent of the problem that the bureau - which is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Association of British Insurers - launched an initiative in 1998 to reduce levels of school arson. It published How to Combat Arson in Schools, with sponsorship from Zurich Municipal, the biggest insurer of school buildings, which includes an action plan for preventing arson.

How to Combat Arson in Schools is available free from the Arson Prevention Bureau. Tel: 020 7216 7437

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