Jun 20, 2018 Last Updated 7:43 AM, Jun 6, 2018

School devasted by floods overcomes immediate challenges

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In this article, Robert Snook, Director and General Manager at Portakabin, looks at how a secondary school devastated in the Cumbria floods successfully minimised the impact on education provision and shares some of the lessons learned.


Unprecedented flooding across Cumbria was caused by storms and when the banks of the River Eden burst, havoc was wreaked in homes, schools and businesses, affecting around 3000 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 7ft, 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.

The teaching staff had to begin almost from scratch but the first priority was to get Christmas back on the agenda for the children, demonstrating that the school was still serving the local community, even though its building was not. The Christmas carol concert went ahead at another local school and was a resounding success.

The Portakabin local emergency response team had its first meeting with the school within days of the disaster and plans to reopen 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 Portakabin 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.

Twenty-four general classrooms and highly fitted-out specialist rooms including for ICT, design and technology, food technology and science were then delivered to site to help create the interim school. The buildings, totalling 2100m², 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 – ground works for the buildings, all fitting out, air conditioning, fire and security alarm systems, access ramps and walkways, emergency lighting, furniture, service connections and data communications. The scheme also included the provision of sports changing rooms, showers, toilet facilities and a furnished sixth form common room.

The general and specialist 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.

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.

According to Owen David, Project Manager at Cumbria County Council: “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 reopen 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. The rooms may have changed but neither the teachers nor the subjects have, which this project has shown really helped.

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 and site supervision in place? For disaster recovery, it is vital that buildings are delivered on time, on budget and to the required standard.

Newman School needed a partner with the fleet resources immediately available to provide the volume of buildings required. The school also benefited from the Portakabin team’s wealth of knowledge in disaster recovery and its years of experience working closely with major school insurers. This all helped to ensure that disruption to teaching was minimised from the outset.

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.

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