Selsey Academy: a hot works case study

  • On 21 August 2016, a huge fire destroyed most of Selsey Academy in West Sussex
  • State-of-the-art replacement facilities are expected to open early next year
  • Head teacher, Tom Garfield, explains how the school has recovered following the incident, and the lessons that have been learned along the way

You don’t get much downtime when you’re in charge of a busy secondary school, but Tom Garfield could have been forgiven for expecting just that at 7.40am on a Sunday in the middle of the summer holidays.

However, when he received a call at home to say there was an “issue” on the roof of the main building at Selsey Academy in West Sussex – where routine maintenance involving hot works was taking place – it quickly became apparent a serious incident was unfolding.

Tom explains: “Our school business manager, who was away on holiday, phoned me to say the contractor had reported an issue on the roof. She asked me if I could drive to the school to check everything was ok. I wasn’t aware at that stage exactly what had happened, but halfway through my journey, I could already see great plumes of smoke.”

The fire, which is believed to have been started accidentally by a workman, had fully taken hold by the time Tom arrived. He said: “It was quite a shock to see the school I’d worked at for a decade up in smoke, but I had to put that to the back of my mind because there were so many practical things that needed doing.

“One of the biggest challenges was that the fire crews were asking so many questions – about the layout of the building, the materials used, the exact location of the gas shut-off, the electrics, the chemical store and so on.”

Instant access to emergency information is vital

“Our network was entirely backed up off-site,” said Tom, “so while we had access to electronic versions of all the documents the fire crews were asking for, we couldn’t provide the information as quickly as they wanted.”

The school now keeps encrypted, digital copies of these vital records on memory sticks, which are kept at various locations close to the academy, so they can be quickly accessed if needed.

The fire destroyed most of the main school building, leaving Tom in a race against time to make alternative arrangements for students to collect their GCSE results the following week, and then find somewhere for all the students to go when the September term started.

Selsey’s support network comes to the rescue

The support of The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT), West Sussex County Council and the Selsey community proved crucial. After contacting various organisations in the local area, the school secured temporary space at five venues, including the town hall, the nearby Bunn Leisure holiday park, and Chichester High School, which is also part of TKAT.

“One of the things that saved us was our close relationship with our partners in the community,” said Tom. “This made it easier to approach them in the initial days after the fire and ask for their help.”

While alternative venues were being arranged, preparations also got underway to provide a temporary education “village” on Selsey Academy’s sports field, which was unaffected by the fire. The village, which opened to students just 44 days after the fire, mostly comprises temporary classrooms that were no longer needed at a school in Worthing.

In the 18 months since the fire, work has been taking place to provide long-term, state-of-the-art replacement facilities on the site of the old school building.

“Things are progressing well,” said Tom, “and our current expectation is that we will be in our new building in January next year.”

How Zurich Municipal helped Selsey Academy get back up and running

Tom praised the support of Zurich Municipal during this process.

“We really appreciate how they made themselves readily available in those first few weeks. We had lots of regular, scheduled meetings, and they got a clear sense of what we were trying to achieve. This meant that although there were some aspects of our claim where they needed more detail, they weren’t bogging us down with endless questions about the minutiae.

“Their approach meant we could get on with the job of getting our school back up and running.”

Selsey’s changed approach to hot works

Tom said that while the school’s procedures for responding to a major incident had functioned effectively, the fire prompted a rethink within TKAT about the use of hot works in future construction and maintenance projects.

“Our default position now is that we don’t allow hot works to take place, and there would have to be compelling reasons to change that position,” he said.

Tilden Watson, Head of Education, Zurich added: “Selsey Academy’s experience shows two things. Firstly, just how important it is for schools and colleges to have a hot works policy in place. Secondly, the need to consider what support you will need from your risk carrier if ever a crisis were to occur. Both areas need to be fully thought through. It is therefore critical that schools inform their insurer about hot works prior to starting the work”