Spirit survives the fire

15th July 2005 at 01:00
How would you cope if your school burned downin the holidays?

Nic Barnard reports

There are security guards on duty now at the gates to Tideway school.

Adrian Money rather wishes they had been there on the night of April 5, when someone broke in and set fire to the staffroom.

Mr Money, headteacher of the secondary school in Newhaven, East Sussex, was as relaxed as he could be when he was phoned on holiday in Cornwall over Easter. Although the administrative block had gone up in flames, most of the school had survived - or so he thought.

"The classrooms hadn't really been affected by fire at all," he says. "I thought we'd get in a few mobile classrooms and that would be it. It wasn't until I was driving back on the Thursday that a senior member of staff rang and asked if I was sitting down."

Tests had revealed that the smoke that spread through the school was contaminated by potentially deadly asbestos. The site was closed immediately.

Tideway had joined the hundreds of schools hit by arson every year - some 900 in 2003 alone. Schools have a one in 20 chance of a blaze; a serious fire happens on average every week.

The average bill for a school fire (arsons make up about 70 per cent) is Pounds 50,000 in insurance claims and fire service costs. When other costs, including disruption and lost time, are included, the total bill topspound;100 million across Englandand Wales.

That has prompted the Department for Education and Skills to commission consultants Capgemini to find ways schools can reduce the risk. A toolkit for local authorities may follow.

At Tideway, the bill could reach pound;5 million. Mr Money got back to find one block all but collapsed, and twisted girders, shattered windows and blackened walls elsewhere. The hall, library, reception area, offices and staffroom were all gone.

But the most telling sign of the problems facing the school was the silver duct tape blocking air vents in surviving buildings. Inside, rooms appear unscathed, but move a picture or a book and marks reveal the passage of smoke. Entry is for asbestos-removal specialists only, wearing white protective suits and breathing apparatus. Everything inside - coursework, records, computers and other resources - has been condemned.

"We have no specialist accommodation," Mr Money says. "We've lost all our science labs, design workshops, drama studio, most of the ICT, art, food."

In all, 42 classrooms have been lost.

The news prompted a rapid rethink of Mr Money's plans for the aftermath.

With four days until the start of term, his most pressing concern was to find new accommodation and organise his staff, despite having no telephone, computer system or paper records. Mobile phones became invaluable.

He made two key decisions: he set a two-week deadline for getting everyone back on site. And he split his teachers into five teams, each responsible for delivering the curriculum to one year group, with or without accommodation.

Through the education authority and local contacts, Tideway gained access to a string of temporary venues including community centres and a local primary school.

The most urgent needs were Year 11 - only six weeks from GCSE - and Year 9, sitting Sats in just three weeks. Year 9 took over a community centre and Year 11 moved into East Brighton college of media arts and technology.

It seemed ideal - the college is due to close and has barely 100 students - but within two days, Year 11 were attacked by local youths, who threw rocks over the perimeter fence. One student was injured. Year 11 moved out.

Meanwhile, there were days of uncertainty about their GCSE coursework which lay in contaminated rooms. It had all been marked - but the mark books were unreachable. Clear answers from the exam board were not forthcoming.

"Finally we got the answer that they would accept teachers' marks," Mr Money says. "So we got a specialist togged up to go in and hold the mark books up to a window so teachers could photograph them from outside."

Distance-learning packs were put together for other years, but all students received some face-to-face education in those first two weeks. Flip charts replaced blackboards.

Reflecting on the lessons of the fire, Mr Money hopes some good may come out of it. Dividing staff into year teams proved an excellent move, he says. It gave teachers some certainty at a time when information about which blocks could be rescued changed almost hourly.

But it also reinforced some ideas about how the school could be organised.

Tideway is in the middle of a downshift that has seen its roll halved as another school opens in nearby Peacehaven. Mr Money now thinks a dedicated area for Year 7, with its own team of teachers, may become permanent. "The idea of every student having 16 teachers is ludicrous," he says.

The intensive revision programme improvised for Years 9 and 11 is also likely to become a permanent post-Easter feature. Even allowing for the Dunkirk spirit, Mr Money says: "Everybody - students, parents, staff - feel it was the most effective revision programme they could have had."

The fire also taught the importance of protecting records. The school's computer server was protected by rubber-sealed fire doors. But it was surrounded by contaminated rooms, meaning it took two weeks to get it running.

At least the most immediately useful records were safe and accessible - an old-fashioned paper copy of the school roll with basic pupil contact details, kept "more by luck than judgement" at a senior teacher's home. It proved vital for reaching students.

But other staff and student records were gone. Mr Money is considering storing data off-site in future; other curriculum work on a virtual network Tideway is piloting was safe.

Like most schools, Tideway had prepared an emergency plan. Measures such as a telephone tree to get messages out to staff quickly worked well.

Most of all, Mr Money says the fire has forced him to re-evaluate his priorities. "Before Easter, my highest priority was making sure our school evaluation form was ready for Ofsted. I was very proud of the fact I'd managed to produce it with hypertext links. But the moment this happened, it seemed pathetically unimportant.

"I've gone back, and I hope the school has gone back, to our core values - about relationships, valuing individuals, and how those values can translate into practice in what is quite a difficult learning environment."

He adds: "It's almost like starting again. We're not teaching the timetable we used to have; people aren't teaching the groups they used to teach."

Mr Money says he was bowled over by the support from staff and parents and from the LEA .

What is needed now is a quick decision on the school's future. Mr Money argues that East Sussex should seize the chance to build a school that fits Tideway's new size. His problem is that, despite the devastation and disruption, officially the fire was not quite severe enough to justify demolishing the school.

Refurbishment will still be a major task. Some buildings will have to be knocked down. Others will have to be completely stripped out and refitted.

As builders work away, and the rumble of generators fills the grounds, Mr Money says he can at last look forward after "the emotional rollercoaster" of the past weeks. The mood among pupils was "very sombre" after the fire, he says, while staff were "clearly shaken and traumatised".

"People have lost an awful lot. Some staff have been here a long time.

They've lost a bit of themselves really."

* An arrest has been made in the Tideway case. A 15-year-old will appear for trial on August 22.

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