Rebuilt Leyland school completes recovery from devastating fire

By Chris Williams

The start of the new academic year brings excitement, hope and opportunity. This might be said of every school in the Archdiocese of Liverpool but for one in particular, the sense of a fresh start is particularly true.

For St Mary’s Catholic High School in Leyland, the first day of the 2015/16 autumn term marked the culmination of a two-year struggle to recover from a quite devastating setback. It was just two years ago that, on the eve of another school year, a large part of the school was severely damaged – and in some places completely destroyed – by a fire.

Astonishing pictures and video footage of the burning building appeared in regional television news reports and national newspaper coverage, reflecting the size and impact of a blaze that was tackled at its peak by over 120 fire-fighters, and which sent into the skies an ominous plume of smoke visible from miles around.

Many parts of the school building were impacted by fire and smoke damage with some areas, such as the science and technology block, burned to the ground or damaged so severely that demolition was the only option. What happened next was two years spent delivering new and refurbished school accommodation in very challenging circumstances.

The first few months after the fire were spent making the site on Royal Avenue safe while ensuring pupils could continue with their studies. This was a challenging logistical exercise, initially involving the transportation of students to accommodation off-site. By Christmas 2013, they were able to return to a suite of temporary buildings located alongside the site of their former school.

Thereafter began the significant task of rebuilding large parts of the school. This meant a 3,530 square-metre project which had to seamlessly incorporate those blocks unaffected by the fire – and be ready to accommodate over 700 children by September 2015. The Archdiocese appointed the Preston-based architects Cassidy and Ashton to oversee the development while awarding the build contract to John Turner Construction.

According to Lawrence McBurney, associate architect at Cassidy and Ashton, the reinstatement project provided an opportunity to reconfigure the lay-out of the school, providing facilities more befitting the requirements of a modern curriculum. "The school is nestled in a predominantly residential area and the fire destroyed a three-storey building, the two-storey science and technology block and some of the sports hall facilities, leaving four isolated buildings," he explained. "The key principle of our plans was to replace and improve on the teaching facilities destroyed by the fire to provide a more flexible environment. Essentially, we wanted to create a new heart at the centre of the building – a core element that everything could feed from."

These new sections, replacing those lost in the fire, are the science and technology blocks, specialist teaching spaces, a redesigned and extended dining area and changing rooms. The school building is now more ecologically-focused, with modern and efficient boilers, natural ventilation and external cladding which, while giving the school building a striking visual image, will improve insulation in the original parts of the building that survived the fire.

At the heart of the school remains the chapel. This has retained its original location but now boasts a bespoke stained glass window commissioned by the school and delivered alongside the reinstatement project. The chapel now has direct access to external social space, making it accessible by staff and students throughout the school day. As a sign of the resilience and endurance of the community of St Mary’s, visitors are met in the main entrance by the charred – but intact – crucifix from the original school buildings, rescued with care by demolition contractors.

For the pupils of St Mary’s, the return to their reconstructed school last month was a special occasion. Eleanor Duncan-Jameson, the head girl, said: "It has been an exciting start to the new school year for everyone at St Mary’s due to the new school which I feel has brought us closer together." Sam Cullen, the head boy, added: "It is like a new home that we are settling into – a family reunited. I feel quite emotional seeing the new building. We have risen like a phoenix from the ashes."

It is worth adding that the rebuilding of St Mary’s was an impressively collaborative exercise. To establish the design of the new building, the project team held events with parents, pupils and local residents, as well as one-to-one discussions with representatives of the school’s different departmental teams. Some excellent ideas flowed from these sessions: a shared learning resource centre as a hub for the school accommodation, used for lessons as well as independent study; widened corridors to support movement around the building; enhanced access to the chapel to make it a focal point throughout the day, including at lunchtimes; and a seamless link between the new accommodation and original buildings.

Once the designs had been finalised and the site prepared for redevelopment, there were barely 12 months to complete the building work in time for this September – a task made all the more challenging by the need to provide a safe environment with minimal disruption to the daily life of staff and pupils.

Yet it was a task completed, and a triumph of collaboration too with a strong sense of gratitude felt within the St Mary’s family towards the different parties involved. Since the day of the fire, the Archdiocese of Liverpool, Lancashire County Council, Cassidy and Ashton, John Turner Construction and Carefoot Plc have all played their part in realising a positive outcome. So too representatives from Ampleforth Abbey, who gave support and encouragement as the recovery and reinstatement work progressed.

One overriding impression, and one regularly cited over the last two years by those contractors and officers working with the school, concerns the welcome extended to all visitors by the whole school community, particularly the students and their families. There was a real sense of everybody pulling together to support the school and see it through one of the most challenging chapters in its long history and supplying the foundations – literally – to establish the future of this proud and successful institution for generations to come.

The spirit of community throughout the school and parish has been the defining aspect of the work accomplished over the last two years – and is an obvious source of pride for Chris Meldrum, the deputy headteacher. "From the devastation of the fire in September 2013, it has been a privilege to be involved with the redevelopment of St Mary’s Catholic High School, working with all aspects of the build process and the organisations supporting the development," he said.  

"The architect has developed a building that integrates the old with the new, creating a useable learning space through free-flowing movement and bright, airy classrooms – a learning space for the 21st century. I feel incredibly proud to see the pupils, staff and parents start to enjoy the space that has been created for learning, seeing the building come alive."