Best Practice

A phoenix from the ashes: Rebuilding our school

Four years ago, the buildings of Rudheath Senior Academy were devastated by an arson attack. Now a transformed school has emerged from the ashes. Emma Lee-Potter finds out how

An eight-foot wooden sculpture of a phoenix is a symbol of just how far Rudheath Senior Academy in Northwich has come in the last four years.

The Cheshire school suffered extensive damage when fire ripped through its buildings in February 2018. However, in the intervening years it has risen phoenix-like from the ashes, metamorphosing from a crumbling, fire-ravaged school into a thriving 11 to 16 school with happy, purposeful pupils and motivated staff.

To mark the transformation local wood sculptor Andy Burgess created the phoenix, which now stands proud and tall in one of the school’s two gardens. In years gone by the school badge depicted a phoenix so the sculpture is particularly apt.

The arson attack in 2018 caused catastrophic damage to the school buildings. A third of the school was destroyed and two-thirds of the classrooms were rendered unusable, along with resources like projectors, whiteboards and books.

“It was a shock to see the substantial damage to the school,” said deputy headteacher Julie-Ann Wilson, who has worked at Rudheath for 17 years and was head of science at the time of the fire. “It was really upsetting but we knew as a school that we had to keep going for the students – and keep their morale and resilience going too.”

The blaze showed the mettle of the entire community. In the aftermath the school opened to year 11 pupils straight away, teaching them in the dance and PE areas, while other year groups returned soon after that. Local businesses and shops were quick to offer their support, donating everything from school lunches to teaching resources.

Formerly known as University of Chester Academy Northwich, the school became part of the North West Academies Trust (NWAT) in 2018 and was renamed Rudheath Senior Academy. NWAT, which manages 10 schools in Cheshire and Shropshire, began a £6m restructuring and renovation programme at Rudheath, including creating a new entrance, a year 7 hub, a high-tech drama hall, and reconfigured, colour-coordinated classrooms with “smart walls”. Building will start later this year on six new science labs.

Before and after: The buildings of the former University of Chester Academy Northwich were gutted during the fire in February 2018. A name change and £6m later and the site has been transformed

“When we took the school on the buildings were in a poor state of repair but we saw it as a chance for change, a chance to do something different,” said Steve Docking, CEO of NWAT and a former headteacher himself.

“There were high levels of sickness and absence among the staff because it wasn’t a great place to come to work so we invested money in the right areas, including specialist facilities like ICT and food technology, and made it a place where people want to work. The better the facilities you’ve got to work in, the greater impact it has on both children and staff.”

Headteacher Lee Barber joined Rudheath in February 2020 and believes that the renovations have had a positive impact on teaching and learning at the school.

“Since the trust took the school on board and secured capital for it we’ve been able to modernise it and make it a state-of-the-art educational space,” he said. “When you walk round the school now it’s incredibly quiet and peaceful and the children are purposeful and engaged.

“As well as recruiting exceptionally good teaching staff and having good systems, routines and organisation in place the pupils have risen to the occasion as well. Having great people teaching in a really poor environment doesn’t necessarily bring the best out in students whereas great staff teaching in a great environment definitely does. We are basically a brand-new school with new facilities, new thinking and new confidence.

“It’s not just about the building though. The building has been the catalyst but you need good people to teach the lessons. The building doesn’t teach the students; the staff do. But it’s so much easier to be positive and inspired when you’re teaching in a lovely environment. When we give prospective employees a tour of the buildings the feedback we get is brilliant.”

The teaching staff are enthusiastic about the changes to their working environment. “They are inspired and their wellbeing has improved,” said Ms Wilson. “Everyone has got the resources and the toolkit they need to be aspirational. We’re not just catching up to where we should have been. We’ve gone above and beyond and the school is forward-facing and innovative.”

Mr Barber and his team have worked hard to transform the curriculum too, making it attractive to students who wish to pursue vocational routes as well as those with an academic focus. More than a third of the pupils (35%) are eligible for free school meals and teachers are determined to create an engaging curriculum that not only leads to opportunities with local employers and apprenticeship providers but also enables greater social mobility for youngsters.

“There isn’t a great deal around here in terms of facilities and what there is is very rundown and old,” said Mr Barber. “The school is a focal point for the whole community so we want to make sure that our curriculum will help to raise aspiration levels and lead towards great careers and great destinations for our pupils, including top universities and top colleges.

“The school used to be very EBacc-centric but we want students to be able to learn with their hands as well as their heads. We want to be fully inclusive and vocational as well as academic.”

From the ashes: (from left) Steve Docking, CEO of NWAT, Rudheath Senior Academy deputy headteacher Julie-Ann Wilson, and headteacher Lee Barber with the phoenix statue that now stands as testimony to the school’s resurrection

Another recent innovation has been to introduce five pathways at key stage 4. The pathways – STEAM, creative arts, digital enterprise, healthcare and international – each offer guidance on the knowledge and skills required to work in specific sectors, as well as suggested next steps for students post-GCSE.

“We’ve leaned towards pathways that are prevalent in our area and closely aligned to employer demand and trends,” said Mr Barber. “For example, there are thousands of healthcare vacancies in this area so the healthcare pathway enables pupils to develop essential knowledge about human growth and development, health and social care services, and factors affecting people’s health and wellbeing.

“Students in year 9 get exposure to the five pathways and choose their options in the spring term. We’ve also tried to marry up the pathways with classroom resources, so for the digital enterprise pathway we have created a digital engineering suite with specialist IT equipment and specialist software for computer aided design and manufacture.

“Digital engineering and construction are huge in this area and there are lots of degree apprenticeships and apprenticeships. We are trying to bridge the gap between employment and school by creating project-based learning opportunities and contextual learning opportunities so pupils are ready to form decisions about what they want to do in their careers.”

Rudheath also runs a careers programme for year 7 to 11 pupils, with the aim of raising aspirations and giving them an idea of the myriad possibilities available to them when they leave school.

The Rudheath Promise summarises the school’s approach, which includes “mastery of academic, vocational and technical subjects”, work experience and business mentoring and a bespoke personal development programme.

It is early days, but Mr Barber believes that the new buildings, new facilities and new curriculum are already making a difference. After the fire pupil numbers dropped to 323 – “what year 6 parents would choose to send their children to a school that had just had a fire?” – but numbers are now at 500 and will rise to around 550 by September this year. Fixed term and permanent exclusions are down, and attendance is up.

“All of our year 11 students from last year went on to a positive destination,” said Mr Barber. “We had nobody who was not in education, employment or training and we are confident that will continue this year.”

Four years on from the fire and the Rudheath team takes huge pride in how far the school has come.

“The new buildings have enabled us to look innovatively at what works for our pupils and our context,” said Mr Barber. “The décor and finish is as exceptional as you’ll find in any school environment in the country and it’s testament to the team that has worked so hard on it.

“What we have achieved here is a great example of what happens when you have a trust with a vision, a school with staff who are aligned with that vision, and everyone works together to collaborate and make it right for the children. It’s something really special.”

So what advice would the Rudheath team offer to other schools on how to pull through a crisis?

  • Make the most of every opportunity.
  • Remember that positives can come out of a negative situation.
  • Rather than repeat what you have always done as a school look at what you can do differently – and better – next time round.
  • Take a good look at what will work for your pupils and your context.
  • Engage with the local community.