I got the call Sunday morning. I thought it was a joke. Travelling back from London, I realised we had no means of communicating with the students, parents or wider community. No postbox, no telephone number, no kids' addresses, our servers and VLE which hosted our website, were all inside the building. All gone.
We knew what everyone would want to know; Will we get a new school? Will we have to go to different schools? What about our coursework? What happens now? What about our exams? And, of course, how did it start? Did a pupil do it?
We knew the fire would be covered by the local media, and these issues would fuel their frenzy for a good story. We needed to not only answer these questions, but take control of the communication that would inevitably ensue.
'We set up a Campsmount Facebook group – there was already an unofficial one'
By Sunday afternoon, we had a Wordpress blog up and running under a web address set up a few weeks prior to host our google apps. www.ctcmail.net would be our lifeline to hang all official announcements off. But how were we going to get this pretty random website out to the community?
We set up a Facebook group, official Campsmount fire updates (there was already an unofficial one even before we set ours up). By Monday morning, there were more 1,500 members, and we started pushing out information through this and our new twitter account www.twitter.com/officialCTC.
We needed to be really visible, so on Monday morning Andy Sprakes, our head, did a YouTube video which got more than 3,000 views. By the time the BBC and ITV came round with their cameras, I half joked with the journalists that we didn’t really need them...
We got the commitment to a new school pretty quickly, but even before then we had decided we must still teach our kids within the community, and ran around finding enough spaces in the local community to put together a makeshift school. A youth centre, a town hall, a local business park, and a couple of portacabins later we had a timetable and enough venues to give our kids at least half a day per year.
Unbelievably, we had sixth form lessons going within a day. The rest of the school only missed eight whole days, and it would have been seven if it wasn’t for the snow.
We’d set up a laptop appeal – ‘Be a PAL of Campsmount and Pledge a Laptop’ – where we asked organisations for one decent laptop. Not 10 rubbish ones, just one decent one. By the second week back, we had more than 100 laptops which meant we could teach ICT for all the timetabled classes. All were pledged from schools nationwide, the SSAT, the co-operative, and a surprising number of local businesses – despite the recession.
We’d also asked for any resources anyone could spare – text books, paper, pens etc. By the first week back, for some subjects, although old and battered, we had more text books than we had previously.
All this was conducted through our new Web 2.0 friends which has and still will work fantastically for us. Stuff like bus timetables were painlessly distributed by firing up Google Docs and linking it to our blog. The exam timetable went into Google spreadsheets.
We had no choice, but it’s very brave using open internet technologies like this, where anyone can make comments using any kind of language, but look for yourselves, the hundreds of massively positive comments by students, teachers, parents and ex-students. In fact, I only saw three silly comments, and one of those was by an adult complaining about the standard of English being used in the comments. Go figure.
This was great, but it’s not the whole story. That started the Friday before we were meant to break up for Christmas when we all got together at the Askern Miners Welfare centre. I’ve heard lots of stories where people say, "The community has really pulled together." But for Campsmount this was utterly true, and something that moves me every time I think about it.
Kids had come in to the Town Hall with the contents of their piggy banks. Old ladies, chattering about how they found out about it from Facebook, bringing in reams of paper and felt-tipped pens. A local sports kit provider printed 150 t-shirts from our design, "We are campsmount", and we sell them all in under an hour. Bag-packing at the local Asda, arranged over the internet. Kids still being able to provide hampers to the old folk. And the captain of Championship side Doncaster Rovers turning up for a fund-raising football match. This all happened in the first week after the disaster happened.
On Friday December 18, the day we were meant to break up for Christmas, we had arranged a get-together in the local miners welfare. No one was expected to turn up. The kids had effectively got an extra week off at Christmas. All we had to offer were a few sweets, some soft drinks, "We are Campsmount" t-shirts and a copy of SingStar.
'It’s people that make a school exist and work'
It was jam packed with kids and teachers alike, and one of the proudest moments of my life. Kids were singing their hearts out, jumping around, revelling in their optimism and strength of community. I never thought I’d ever say this, but Askern Miners Welfare, on that Friday afternoon, there was no other place in the world I’d rather be.
To end it all, Andy addressed the buzzing crowd, and there was nothing more poignant and accurate said than when he explained to the kids that bricks and mortar don’t make a school – we do.
It’s not the buildings, the ICT, the organisation or processes. They can all help, but it’s people that make a school exist and work. We didn’t have any of this, but we all knew we still had a school.
Yes, we used the ICT around us to spectacular and instant results, but it’s not about that. It’s definitely not about pontificating the amazing potential of geo-tagging, mobile and games based learning whatever whatever. Other people can carry on prancing around about that. Christmas has come and gone, and after the emotional roller coaster, we are all faced with the extremely hard task of getting some teaching done, and getting our kids through their exams in our make shift classrooms.
Some things I know are true. We won’t let the kids down and they won’t let themselves down. And we will build the world class school that our community deserves.
We will do this because we are Campsmount.
Gwyn ap Harri is director of Smartassess. He is undertaking his NPQH headship qualification at Campsmount Technology College
January 13-16, Olympia, London
STOP PRESS: BETT Exhibitors Vye Computers and Immersive Education have come up with five Windows netbooks and a school licence (including home access for students) for Kar2ouche software) for Campsmount. Any more kind offers out there?
You can contact Gwyn ap Harri on theSmartassess stand – L18