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Newman Catholic School

Lessons learned from the Cumbria floods

Robert Snook explains how one devastated school successfully overcame the immediate challenges

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 02, 2016 | People, policy, politics, money

Unprecedented flooding across Cumbria last year was caused by storms and when the banks of the River Eden burst, havoc was wreaked in homes, schools and businesses, affecting around 3,000 children in the region. After tremendous effort, Cumbria County Council and the schools involved were able to ensure that all children could return to classes for the start of the spring term in either adapted buildings or interim teaching accommodation. 

The worst-hit school was Newman Catholic School, a secondary school and sixth form in Carlisle which was irreparably damaged – and flooded for the second time since 2005. Flood waters rose to seven feet, with most of the ground level rooms and facilities left under heavily contaminated water. There was extensive water damage to the science laboratories, data communications, ICT suites, chapel, main hall, sports halls, children’s work, and precious exam coursework.

First phase emergency response 

The Portakabin local emergency response team had its first meeting with the school within days of the disaster and plans to re-open on the site of a former primary school were put into action, with additional interim classrooms being installed very quickly. This could ensure the facilities would be in place for the start of the spring term for its 650 pupils. 

Twelve single classroom buildings were supplied complete with furniture, data communications and alarm systems as a first response to get the school up and running again while a longer-term accommodation solution could be designed and constructed. Each building provided open-plan teaching space for around 34 children to supplement the former primary school facility.

Students at work at Newman Catholic School

A bespoke interim school solution

Twenty-four general classrooms and highly fitted out specialist rooms including for ICT, design and technology, food technology, science and a sixth form common room were then delivered to site to help create the interim school. The buildings totalling 2,100sqm were supplied in just 12 weeks, designed and built to permanent standards, and will be in use until a long-term solution is developed.

Portakabin provided Cumbria County Council with a full service for Newman School’s new site following the flood disaster – including ground works, fitting out, air conditioning, alarm systems, furniture, and data communications. The scheme also included the provision of sports changing rooms, and shower and toilet facilities.

The classrooms were configured as 12 double classroom blocks which are located on either side of a central ‘street’. Some of the buildings are linked together, and all the rooms have movement sensors to reduce energy consumption. Much of the lost equipment was replaced and fully fitted.

The project challenges 

This was a challenging project on a difficult site and required in a very fast timescale to minimise disruption to the children’s education: 

  • The new accommodation had to be sited on a water-logged playing field which required gas, electric and water services bringing in.
  • The site was located in a constrained residential area so an access road had to be constructed for delivery of the buildings.
  • The construction team had to work through very poor weather conditions and still deliver the project on time and on budget. 

The school’s perspective

John McAuley, Headteacher at Newman Catholic School, said: “The Portakabin team was incredibly fast to respond to the situation and planning meetings were held within days of the disaster. This was really important to help us manage the situation. Our priority was to ensure that our students could be taught in accommodation that was at least equivalent to what they had before. The reality is that the interim facilities we now have are in many ways superior to our original classrooms. 

“The classrooms are bright, warm, airy and welcoming. Despite the terrible floods, our school has considerably improved facilities. We would absolutely recommend this approach to other schools needing emergency accommodation or classrooms for shorter-term use. We have had a fantastic experience with such a responsive team of building professionals who have been there for us every step of the way.”

The council’s perspective

Owen David, Project Manager at Cumbria County Council, said: “Speed of response was exactly what we needed on this project. The Portakabin team was extremely quick to arrive on site to assess and respond to the situation. And by using a building partner who could handle everything for us, we could focus our efforts and resources in other areas that needed addressing because of the seriousness of the flooding across the county. This is just the sort of help and collaboration that schools and local authorities need in an emergency situation. We would certainly recommend the approach, which worked really well for us and the buildings that are now in use are excellent.”

Lessons learned 

Acting quickly and collaboratively is imperative in an emergency situation. On this project, the school, council and key suppliers such as Portakabin worked well together and had developed an urgent first response solution within a matter of days of the disaster to re-open the school.  

Providing a sense of normality for the students as quickly as possible was the overriding priority. This proved to be hugely beneficial. Students are surprisingly resilient but equally, this experience has shown that it is vital for timetables to remain the same throughout to maintain a strong sense of continuity. 

Forming a partnership with a good emergency response building supplier was critical – and involving the modular company immediately – and not seven to 10 days after the crisis – is very important. This allows resources and available buildings to be allocated to the priority school sites.

Check at the outset that the modular supplier has the capacity and building stocks required for the project, when the accommodation is needed – as few suppliers in the UK can offer lead times of just a few days. Does the modular partner have adequate project management resources, design expertise, fleet resources and site supervision in place for delivery on time, on budget and to the required standard. This will all help to minimise disruption. 

Speed of response is always essential as is delivering teaching accommodation of the highest standards and in line with Department for Education guidelines. There should never be any compromise on children’s education just because they are working in interim classrooms.

The importance of contingency planning 

A key lesson learned from the Cumbria floods is that more schools need to have up-to-date disaster recovery plans prepared in advance – which a company such as Portakabin can assist with.  A detailed school inventory and a full assessment of the school’s building requirements can potentially cut an emergency response programme by up to two weeks, further reducing any interruption to teaching.  

The planning data can be stored remotely and a fully costed building proposal produced without the supplier even needing to visit the school to assess requirements.

The plan should include a detailed review of the site, the school facilities to replicate, the potential areas for siting interim accommodation, ground works implications, access issues, and space planning. This preparation is invaluable in helping to ensure a school or college has the buildings needed to continue to operate in the event of a crisis situation. 

With careful planning and collaborative working, schools can be fully operational as fast as possible to minimise the impact of any major incident on education provision. 

Robert Snook is Director and General Manager at Portakabin.

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