The show must go on for Lytchett Minster school - in the Olympic canteen
When lightning struck Lytchett Minster's arts block, it looked like curtains for school drama productions. But help arrived from an unexpected source.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 01 May 2013
The Olympic legacy, it seems, makes its impact felt in some unexpected places. Take Lytchett Minster school, a comprehensive in the heart of the Dorset countryside with 1,350 pupils, for instance.
The prospects for their GCSE drama lessons looked bleak when lightning struck the school's creative arts block shortly after 6am on the day after Boxing Day. "I think everybody from miles away could hear it," says headteacher Stuart Clark, ruefully. He was told of the damage at 8am.
It was the second time the creative arts block had suffered fire damage. The first time had been just over a decade ago when a drunken ex-pupil set fire to the place. Thoughts returned to the years of struggle – and lessons in 27 temporary classrooms – that it took to recover.
It would be a huge blow to the school, which, as befits a specialist arts college, prides itself on its attention to creativity and dance and drama.
"We've always had the feeling that we should nurture the creative side," says Mr Clark. "I know that our present Government thinks this is a much despised part of the curriculum – however, it makes high demands of our pupils."
All was not lost this time, though, as the school's insurers contacted a firm with a worldwide reputation for setting up accommodation for events at short notice, De Boer. Its previous clients had included the Chelsea Flower Show, the Farnborough Air Show, the National Eisteddfod and hospitality suites for Six Nations rugby events and World Cup football matches. It had amassed a bank of structures that could be used to fit any requirement and among these just happened to be the dining hall used by the athletes during last summer's Olympic games – which was designed to serve 50,000 meals a day.
Within weeks, it was loaded on to lorries and shipped down to the tiny village of Lytchett Minster – and in put place so that the students could start preparing for their GCSE drama presentations.
It was, says 15-year-old Stella Mills, who is performing in a play by teenage writer Mark Wheeler, Too Much Punch for Judy, much better than the arts block it replaced.
Not surprising, since the building was adapted to supply a 420-seater theatre, complete with stage and lighting gallery, two drama classrooms, five arts classroons, three music classrooms, a recording studio and photography classroom and studio. All this and an area left over where pupils can chill out and relax.
"The drama space in the old building was quite small," says Stella. "I was disappointed when I heard about the fire because all our drama work had been stored inside but they quickly put this up – very, very quickly, scarily quickly."
Todd Slaughter, her 16-year-old co-star in the production, which they will perform for the GCSE next week, adds: "We sat here after we heard about the fire and we decided we couldn't just sit here and do nothing about it."
The pair raised £1,000 through sponsored bag-packing at Asda. The school was also given a donation of 250 theatrical costumes after their previous wardrobe went up in smoke.
"I think I prefer it to what we had before," says Todd. "We have everything we need and it's a lot bigger and easier to work with."
In fact, the only problem the pupils and their teacher have is its temporary nature. It will be in place for 18 to 24 months, by which time it is expected that the former block will be replaced. (The only group who might feel happy about that is the PE department, who lost a football pitch to accommodate the new structure – but the school still has extensive grounds and sports facilities for its pupils to use.)
Nikki Peace, the school's head of drama, says: "I love it. It just feels so much more alive than the last building. It's such a nice building to work in. I just feel as if I'm working in a studio rather than a classroom."
Mical de Boer, who masterminded the project, says: "We didn't have to use all of the athletes' dining room." The original building was 80ft by 240ft – which would have dwarfed the school grounds. The school's converted structure is 80ft by 40ft.
"We have a reputation for doing things quickly," he says. "We just get down to it. After all, if you've got to get the Chelsea Flower Show ready for the opening, it's no use saying you can't do it until after the Queen's opened it." The firm's flirtation with helping out when disaster strikes is a recent string to its bow but it has already been engaged to help out two other education establishments – including a temporary dining hall for New College Oxford, which has been designed to fit in with the 14th-century college's period architecture.
"It has been hard work here," says de Boer, "but with a 'can do' attitude, you can do it."
That "can do" attitude also impressed Chris Hall, chairman of the school's governing body who, ironically, was also chairman the previous time there was a fire in 2000. He had just been persuaded to resume the chairmanship before the lightning struck. "My first thought was 'oh, not again'," he says.
He believes the school's decision to seek foundation status – offered under the Labour government, which gave the governing body more freedom but did not sever links with the local authority altogether, helped it move ahead with the replacement more swiftly this time.
"It meant that we could take decisions," he says. "We are quasi independent of the local authority. It doesn't mean to say we want to be totally distant from them – we just want to make sure that the school has the final say in decisions affecting it.
"I've been a governor for a long, long time and the experience of the local authority has not always been positive, but certainly in this particular instance I can't fault them and they have been incredibly supportive.
"I think it made me feel glad that we weren't an academy. If you're an academy, you would be totally on your own." The school did suffer some disruption in the initial aftermath of the fire, with one year group having to be sent home every day as there was not enough classroom space to accommodate all the pupils – but it was a very different kettle of fish to the disruption the previous time when all the work was not completed until just four years ago.
The £2.5m facility was being officially opened by Dorset shooting gold medallist Peter Wilson yesterday.
The school is in astonishingly beautiful surroundings (some would say, for a state-funded comprehensive). Indeed, I was not the only one to admit to driving up to it and thinking I had been briefed incorrectly and that it was an independent school.
It is, though, a bona fide comprehensive school, which draws its pupils from the villages and hamlets around the Bournemouth and Poole areas. The building has been in use for educational purposes for 55 years.
"It is no bog-standard comprehensive school," Mr Clark acknowledges. Indeed it has also been hidden from the village so well that people who live three miles away from it have told him they did not realise it was there.
One thing is certain, though: while its landscape may have put it in a unique position for a state school for some time now – it now has another unique attribute.
It is doubtful whether next week, when candidates perform their GCSE coursework, any other pupils will be strutting their stuff in a former Olympic dining hall which once had 5,000 athletes chomping through 50,000 meals every day.
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