Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Hello, emergency services...

Firefighter on Ladder Over Fire

Hundreds of schools are hit by arson each year, causing hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage. As director of corporate services at Copleston High School, Kate Lacey tells how the school reacted when it was hit by a major fire the week before the start of the autumn term.

It was in the early hours of August Bank Holiday 2006 that the telephone rang and I heard the voice of the facilities manager: "The school's on fire!" My first thought was that it was a joke; it was my birthday and one ending with a 0. But, no, I soon got the message this was real.

I came to the school to find a police cordon around it, 16 fire tenders and a hundred firefighters. This was later described as Suffolk's biggest fire for several years and confirmed as arson.

At this point I had only been employed at the school, and indeed within education, for four months. Although I had instantly realised that this was the job for me, I had no emotional attachment to the school building. In fact, the last thing I said to the head before the holidays was that I wanted to reorganise the administrative area as, like most schools, the requirements for administrative staff had grown rapidly but not the space to house them.

Therefore you can well imagine, as I stood with one of the deputy heads, Ann Ager, outside the school watching the highly professional firefighters, that my reaction was quite different to hers as we viewed the blazing fire.

By lunchtime the senior firefighter said that he could take me into the school to see the damage. This was leapt on by the gathering media who asked to come with us and film my reaction to the devastation. Mindful that we would need the media on side in the coming days, I agreed.

We were taken round to a back courtyard, where the full force of the damage could be seen. I then had to remember that I was on camera. No, it wasn't tears forming on my face, as the media hoped for, but a smile of hope - absolute devastation, what an opportunity!

Assessing the damage

It wasn't until Ann and I went inside that the magnitude of the damage hit me. Water was cascading down the staircase and flooding the parquet floor, and inches of black goo covered every surface. How were we going to get the school ready for the following week's start of term?

Things got worse as we got closer to the seat of the fire. Windows had blown out; corridors were black; my new office, which I had only moved into four days before, had no ceiling. The staffroom had disappeared, internal walls had collapsed and there was still a fire burning in the space that had been a science lab. The smell was overpowering and permeated everything, including me, for weeks.

Smoke and water damage had spread throughout the school; only one block, about 20 per cent of the building, escaped completely untouched.

However there were unexpected glimmers of hope. Firefighters had dragged out everything they could save, including irreplaceable teaching resources from the PE classroom.

Firefighters told me that the facilities team had gone into the burning building with them to unlock doors, turn off the gas and assist them in finding their way around; the ICT manager had been in to try to isolate the network.

At this point we had to look ahead. We immediately arranged a press conference with both the fire and police services in the nearby primary school. Ann and I agreed that whatever we did from this point needed to be positive, something that has underpinned our whole approach to this challenge.

Pupils had stood with us outside the school asking: "Hey Miss, will the school be closed until Christmas?" We had to try to be business as usual.

Our public message was that we had record GCSE and A level results and a highly successful summer school in the two weeks leading up to the fire - we would be open for term start as published. But how?

During this first day, we had been trying to contact the head, Laurie Robinson, who was unfortunately in an area of no mobile phone coverage on holiday in Yorkshire. He tells of his horror when he got back in range at the end of the day to find a string of calls, at which point he instantly returned to Suffolk.

The war cabinet

Day two saw the creation of our 'war cabinet': Laurie at the helm, Ann, me, two assistant headteachers, the facilities manager and ICT manager. Only now did we start to realise the enormity of what we faced. We were without power, telephones and ICT network. Despite water everywhere, we had no running water.

With no disaster recovery plan in existence we needed to pick our way carefully through the recovery phase. Our actions are now informing the development of such a plan and proved to be a worthwhile subject for my MBA dissertation.

The clean up team was very small: the facilities team, ICT team and a few of the admin staff, supported by our contract cleaners who did a stunning job. We instigated a system of clean and dirty areas, with footwear being changed as we entered a clean area so as not to spread the thick, oily residue.

One of our priorities was communication. The ICT manager was able to get very limited internet access in the furthest corner of the school and we began a 'fire diary' on the web. This was updated daily with news, plans for term start and photographs. We received 70,000 hits in the first week.

I wrote to all members of staff to inform them of the damage and the plans to start back on time.

The lack of telephones was a particularly difficult problem. To begin with we used mobile phones for contact in and out of school, which was backed up by investing in additional radios to ensure emergency coverage across our very large campus once students and teachers returned.

Power was reconnected to most of the school by the end of the week, although in some parts it will not be reconnected until after the rebuild. Nine months after the fire, we are still using temporary IT and telephone networks.

One of the easier problems to overcome was the requirement for classrooms. Within the week we had five temporary classrooms on site to replace those destroyed or damaged.

What was far more difficult to replace was the office space. We have had to be quite creative here; an old drama studio has been partitioned to provide office and workspace for caretakers and cover supervisors, part of the library became office space as did the study room.

Open for business

Our biggest achievement was opening on time the following week. Seven days after the fire the teaching staff returned. Two days later, we began a phased introduction of students with years 7, 12 and 13 and the prefects from year 11 beginning on schedule. Two days later, years 10 and 11 returned followed by years 8 and 9.

This allowed us to ensure that our new routes around school and new emergency exits worked as planned. The students were wonderful and settled quickly into new routines.

What would we do differently if we had to go through it again? Actually, not very much. We worked very closely with our contractors who were superb throughout. We developed a close working relationship with the local authority, CDC Demolition and Haymills, which carried out much of the 'shoring up' work.

We kept lines of communication open, whether through the internet, letters or the press.

We would have saved time in the early days by holding interviews with the two television and two radio stations at the same time each day, rather than independently. This happened until the pupils returned to school when we felt it would be too disruptive. We still have visits at regular intervals and will involve the media when rebuild work starts. We were very grateful for their help and support.

One important daily ritual became lunch. We sat down together (on new park benches in reception) to eat some form of takeaway, enabling us all to discuss plans of action and ideas. We were working very extended hours but this small ritual helped us to maintain a sense of humour throughout.

At the time of writing, we have a planning application for the rebuild which will increase the destroyed area from two floors to three and redevelop and extend the administration area.

We hope to be in our new build by January 2008. The design of our new building has been created through our vision and with the expertise of a young architect, an ex-pupil of the school.

It has been a challenging, stressful year for everyone, but from underneath the layers of black goo, Copleston High School has emerged better and stronger than before - an opportunity after all.

Kate Lacey is director of corporate services at Copleston High School, an 11-19 specialist sports college and mixed comprehensive in Ipswich, with 1,800 students on roll.

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