Staying afloat

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Staff at a Carlisle primary had to rapidly revise their plans for the new term when ferocious storms hit the city and their school became the centre of the relief effort. Wendy Wallace reports

Are you handy with a frying pan and a megaphone? Able to make soup for several hundred without flapping? As a teacher, you never know what you might be asked to do next.

When staff and children at Norman Street primary school in Carlisle returned for the new term in January, they held an assembly on the tsunami.

They would hold a toy sale, they decided, to raise money for the victims.

Two days later, a combination of storm force winds, torrential rain and a high tide brought flooding across the city. Three rivers burst their banks and hundreds of homes in the honeycombed streets around Norman Street school were flooded with up to 8ft of freezing water contaminated with raw sewage. The school, which stands on a slight rise, suffered damage to its roof and lost its electricity, but remained dry inside; several others in the city were flooded.

Early the next day, on Sunday January 9, Judith Baskerville, Norman Street's headteacher, took a phone call from her deputy. Silver Command - Cumbria county council's emergency team, which was directing operations from Carlisle castle -had called to say that Norman Street was to open immediately as a food distribution centre. What followed showed beyond all doubt that schools are at the heart of their communities.

While deputy Susan Edmondson went round the school hunting for candles, Ms Baskerville - at home in west Cumbria and unable to get into the flooded city as roads were closed - contacted teaching and support staff to see who could help out. "We had no idea what a food distribution centre meant," she says. Five members of the support staff had been flooded in their own homes, she discovered. Staff began to arrive at school, bringing with them fruit cakes, bread and cheese - and willing relatives. The emergency team delivered an industrial-sized gas barbecue, as well as quantities of soup, a patio heater and several pallets of bottled water. The staff of Norman Street realised it was up to them to set up the soup kitchen. "You make a logical connection, as primary teachers," says Ms Baskerville.

On Monday a generator was delivered, and, with help from the delivery man and the school's ICT co-ordinator, the school's cookers were up and running. The secretary went out into the surrounding streets with a megaphone to announce that the school was open, and serving hot drinks and food. With no television or phones, word of mouth was the most effective communication system, with the exception of the valiant efforts of Radio Cumbria, which could still reach those with battery radios.

Over the following week, families poured into the Norman Street hall, in varying degrees of distress. Children, including seven-year-old pupil Emma Maskell, had been carried out of their houses on their parents' shoulders, or rescued in dinghies. While the flood waters had begun to drain naturally, cellars remained full of icy water and some filled up as fast as they were pumped out. It was not just the sausage sandwiches and coffee that were welcomed. "To see a familiar face was really good for people," says Susan Edmondson.

The situation was compounded by fear of looters; police had broken down front doors in the early hours of the emergency, to make sure people were not trapped in their houses. Reports quickly circulated of criminal gangs looking for unguarded properties; flood-damaged electrical goods put outside houses were stolen along with the contents of skips.

The scale of the emergency in Cumbria was overwhelming; more than 100 schools across the county were closed due either to flooding, power cuts or storm damage at the beginning of the week. Two women drowned and more than 3,000 households in the city were flooded. The civic centre, the police station and the fire station were all under water, and many landlines and mobile phones would not work, all of which contributed to the confusion.

Carlisle's emergency plan worked - up to a point. While the county team decreed that Norman Street should stop teaching and start feeding people instead, it sent no one to run the facility. For six days, the teachers and support staff of the school worked voluntarily for 12 hours a day running an emergency centre that offered food, informal counselling, use of the telephone and other practical help. During that time, there was muddle and contradictory messages from the top but little practical support. Two police officers were detailed to protect the site at night; volunteers from the WRVS, Red Cross and Salvation Army arrived later in the week to help.

But essentially school staff created, organised and ran the centre for the benefit of hundreds of traumatised local people. "We're so good at management on the hoof in schools," says Judith Baskerville. "We made it work because we were constantly assessing need."

The bonus for the school is that a community spirit often lamented as dead was re-ignited. When Ms Baskerville went on to Radio Cumbria to say they had run out of sausages and bacon, donations began to arrive immediately. A parent made huge batches of fresh scones every day and someone donated a tier of her wedding cake. The local shop gave free milk, tea and sugar and a burger bar provided cups with lids; marooned on the first floor of their houses, guarding what remained of their belongings and waiting for insurance assessors, not everyone could get out to the school. So staff went to them instead. "The support from the school was fabulous," one local resident tells the head, as she walks the battered streets. "You couldn't even think about a meal - and it was there, on hand. You were a lifeline to me."

But the experience has taken its toll. Norman Street was cleaned and disinfected over the weekend after the emergency operation; staff then had two days of debriefing and planning with the LEA how to meet their 299 children's pastoral needs, before reopening as a school on Wednesday, January 19. Three-quarters of the school's pupils had been flooded themselves, had relatives affected, or had stood on their doorsteps watching the water rise and wondering if it would reach their own houses.

Staff are exhausted and many children traumatised; the local authority is putting in extra education, welfare and teaching support.

"There are a lot of lessons to be learned," says Ms Baskerville, in a voice still hoarse from the throat infection that set in during the week of the floods. "They should have staffed it appropriately from the point where they decided to use it, then my teachers could have been just the re-assurance point for the children and families. There is a lot of community knowledge of the school, and to see familiar faces was what people really needed."

Cumbria's director of education, Victoria Ashfield, is full of praise for teachers, support staff and LEA personnel, whom she describes as "absolutely heroic". But early warnings would not have made much difference, she believes. "We have to accept that there are natural events that are disastrous. You can't blame anybody for them. There are things that are beyond reasonable prediction."

The challenge for Norman Street school now - as well as supporting children over the difficult year to come - is to keep alive the spirit of togetherness forged during the emergency. The challenge for Newman school, an 11-18 Catholic secondary whose playing fields are bounded by the River Eden, is to rebuild what has been lost in recent weeks. John O'Neill had been head at the school for just a year and a half when water cascaded over the top of the flood defences and into the school buildings. Several Carlisle schools were flooded in January but none so comprehensively as Newman, whose site that weekend looked "like an ocean", according to Mr O'Neill and deputy head Peter Naylor. Now, there is a line of skips full of books and football boots in front of the school and a tidemark about 4ft up the windows and walls.

What is particularly dismaying at Newman is that this was a school that was just beginning a period of renewal. Under John O'Neill's leadership, there was a new emphasis on building students' self-confidence, on improving the environment and creating the conditions for success. Among the debris is Pounds 150,000 worth of dining room furniture, photographs of Year 11 dressed up for the newly introduced prom, and recently installed computers and carpets.

Three members of staff entered the flooded building and retrieved AS and A-level papers, which students sat in borrowed accommodation at North Cumbria Technology College (NCTC) the following Monday. Turnout for the tests was 100 per cent and Newman staff invigilated. "I think that is an achievement," says Mr O'Neill. Mock GCSEs began on the Thursday, in the hall of a neighbouring school that had also been partly flooded.

Since the flood, people at Newman have simultaneously had to create a new school, and salvage what they can of the old one. As a voluntary aided school, making alternative provision is the responsibility of the governors, but the local education authority has been "marvellous", says John O'Neill. Years 11, 12 and 13 have temporarily moved to a wing of NCTC - where they have been received with "great warmth" - while the lower school has taken over two floors of nearby Carlisle College. Every student was back in school within two weeks of the flood and many much sooner.

"Newman School" says the pink Post-It on a swing door at Carlisle College.

Over one weekend, technicians cannibalised 60 old computers not needed by the college to make ICT suites, builders put up stud walls to create classrooms, and teachers and support staff unpacked boxes of new stationery and books. Students returned to warm and inviting classrooms and a part-time timetable. Teachers are now helping students to come to terms with what has happened to them. Year 8's English project is on "the flood of a lifetime".

A mind-boggling range of issues has to be resolved: moving from a house to a year system, creating school councils for both sites, adapting health and safety policy and re-assigning teaching and management responsibilities.

All this must be done without the school computer server, electronic registration or even DfES manuals. In spare moments, teachers have been back at the damp-chilled school picking through the debris in surgical gloves; everything lost must be logged for insurance purposes, but because the water was contaminated with sewage, little can be salvaged. Staff, says Mr O'Neill, have shown remarkable resolve. "People rallied and made sure things continued." He expects the original site to be ready for full re-occupation in September. "I don't recommend this as a way to upgrade your facilities but we will practically have a new school, when we go back."

It never rains but it pours, they say. Since the floods, Newman school has learned that it is in special measures after failing its November Ofsted inspection. While acknowledging recent improvements and the strength of the sixth form, inspectors found that overall too little had moved on since their previous visit in 1999. John O'Neill, living in a hotel room because his own city centre flat was also flooded, faces a struggle to rebuild the school physically; to heal morale after the seemingly gratuitous blow dealt by the inspectors is a bigger challenge. "I'm deliberately focused on the present and the future," he says. "That is a choice I made when I looked at the water in the school. I had no school, responsibility for 650 students and their education, welfare, aspirations. That really focused me."

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