‘Fastest school ever built’ opens for pupils displaced by Grenfell Tower fire

CREDIT: This story was first seen in the Guardian

On a former military parade ground once used to exercise cavalry horses, the “fastest school ever built” has opened its doors to students displaced by the fire at Grenfell Tower, the Guardian reports.

Until the terrible events of June 14, Kensington Aldridge academy (KAA) was a pristine £26m school with state-of-the-art facilities and a bold new ethos. Its location at the foot of Grenfell Tower tied its fortunes to the disaster, which left an estimated 80 people dead.

Today, the original building is a ghost school. It escaped serious damage and has remained out of bounds since the fire. But KAA’s 960 pupils now have a new home just over a mile away in the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith and Fulham – a temporary school created out of portable, prefabricated buildings in just nine weeks.

The new school, known as KAA2, is squeezed into a site on the edge of an area of open land known locally as the Scrubs. There are two other schools within a stone’s throw and Wormwood Scrubs prison is across the nearby park, which houses the Linford Christie outdoor sports centre and a model aircraft runway.

More than 200 workers from Portakabin and the construction company Mace worked from dawn till dusk – and right through the night in the final weeks of the project – in order for the school to be ready for pupils on September 18.

Just over a fortnight later, on a windy Thursday morning, KAA2 seems much like any other school. In reception, there are children who feel poorly and want to go home. In the playground, there is the familiar volume of chatter from pupils enjoying their morning break. In the classrooms, there are the usual lessons and assessments and laughter.

There are none of the soaring atriums or capacious theatres that are a feature of many modern academies. In the series of Portakabins, there are, however, eight science labs and two design and technology workshops; there’s a food technology room, two music rooms, two IT suites with 30 computers in each, two libraries and two studios (one for drama and one for dance).

“It fully replicates the curriculum structure of the original school,” says KAA’s principal, David Benson. “We made a commitment to parents and students about the courses we were going to offer and the quality of the teaching, and we’ve honoured the commitment.”

Many in the school community were personally affected by the fire: four KAA pupils and a fifth who had recently left the school died. But the academy reopened just 48 hours later, with pupils receiving lessons for the final weeks of the summer term in two neighbouring schools. More remarkably, even as the fire continued to burn through the tower, 56 KAA students turned up on the morning of 14 June to sit their AS-level maths exam in a hastily rearranged exam hall.

“Quite quickly after the fire our instincts were: we need to bring the students together so we can address what’s happened, so we can start to lift their spirits and refocus them on their academic ambitions,” says Benson.

The school’s impressive AS-level results were published in August. KAA’s first ever set of national exams, they put the school in the top 10% for “value added”, with students achieving on average a grade higher than national expectations.

Last month, at the end of the summer holidays, the whole school was reunited, first with a series of residential courses outside London to give contractors time to complete construction, and finally in their new home. It was an emotional and anxious moment, but Benson and his team are delighted with the new school and the students are settling in well. “It’s the fastest school ever built,” Benson says with pride. “It’s helping the students to move forward and be positive, and move beyond what’s happened.”

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The building subtly features the same shade of sea green that dominates the palette of colours at the original site; the school motto, “Intrepidus” (undaunted), decorates the walls, and illustrations and quotations echo those at the old building. There are the same wall displays and furniture taken from the original site. “Today, it looks and feels like their school,” says Benson.

He hasn’t been back to the old building yet, but other teachers have, to collect equipment and help move furniture. “It was like moving house, but 100 times over,” says Benson. “Staff describe it as being quite emotional being back in.”

Therapy and counselling are available from Place2Be and two new full-time, in-house counsellors. “The community will be feeling the impact of Grenfell for a very long time, but it’s not something that should feature in normal conversations in school,” Benson says.

To get the school year off to a good start, 800 students went on residential visits around the country – the entire sixth form decamped to two Oxford colleges, Hertford and Queen’s, for a week. A video has been made of the students’ experience, in which they are filmed taking lessons, eating dinner and relaxing in the rather grand surroundings. Many are overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, which seems a million miles from the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. “It’s been like a breath of fresh air,” one teenager enthuses. “It makes you feel smarter,” says another.

Back in west London, in an English A-level class studying LP Hartley, Abdullahi Ali, 17, says the experience has inspired him to apply to Oxford to study modern languages. “It was nice to come back together like that. It was a really good way to start the year.” On his temporary school, he says: “I don’t think the building matters. It’s the education and teaching that matter.”

Titilayo Bamgbose, the head girl, adds: “Everyone was nervous coming back. It was like coming to a whole new school. Then you start your lessons and it’s all normal.” She admits, however, “I miss my locker.”

In a neighbouring classroom, Harry Robbins is studying for A-level geography. “We’ve got just on with things,” he says. “We’re not dwelling on the past. It’s showing that the school has resilience. We’ve come together and pushed forward.”

Back at the old site on Silchester Road, the building is intact but the classrooms are empty, as is the school reception, apart from a few packing crates. The playground, where debris fell from the burning tower, is full of activity as forensic teams clad in protective suits continue their investigations.

The walls and railings around the area are still decorated with photos of the missing and the dead. There are memorials and posters urging visitors to show respect and not take photographs; there are yellow ribbons and soft toys and an unavoidable sense of enormous sadness.

The tower is expected to be finally covered and the area made safe by March next year, but KAA will wait until next September to move back. “It will be good to be home,” says Benson.

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