The school forced to move after the Grenfell Tower fire is looking forward to returning “home” and could be back in its original building within months. Kensington Aldridge Academy lost four pupils and one former student in the blaze, and some children are still having counselling.
But its head said pupils could return to the site at the foot of the tower as early as September — if the burned-out building was “wrapped” and shielded from view. He said the secondary school is determined the future will be positive, with its first set of GCSE results due this summer and three of the first cohort of sixth formers offered Oxbridge places.
Principal David Benson said: “The feeling in the school community is that as difficult as it is to have to think about Grenfell, we are optimistic and proud of the successes the school has had.”
He added: “2018 is a big year for us. We are very focused on our first set of A-level results and the three Oxbridge offers. We are projecting that our first set of GCSE results will be among the very highest nationally in terms of progress. And we are very focused on getting back into our building.”
The school, which opened in 2014, is now in a temporary building made entirely of portable units on the edge of Wormwood Scrubs, around a mile from the original site. Built in nine weeks, all the facilities in the original building were replicated including state-of-the-art science labs and music studios. But despite the top quality new site, Mr Benson said the school is keen to return “home”.
He added: “Our admissions policy and our whole philosophy remains unchanged. We are a north Kensington academy built to serve that community. We are temporarily here in W12, but we are very much going home.
“We have retained links with the building and I visit it regularly. There is an attachment that the school feels to that building and that community, that we will be looking forward to — at the right time — getting back to.”
KAA1, as the original building is now known, was largely undamaged by the fire. But the school had to move to KAA2 because of its proximity to the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, and because it was within the police cordon. Mr Benson said: “We anticipate being back in September. But that will only be if the tower is fully wrapped, and if the school — by which I mean the parents, students, staff and governors — feel that is the right thing to do. We need to be satisfied about all the questions we will have if the tower is being demolished— will that be safe? Air quality? As long as we can be 100 per cent sure that it’s in the best interests of our students then we will go home.”
He added: “As difficult as it is to think of being in a school close to the tower, we are a community school, we have a transparent admissions policy based on distance, which means all of our kids live effectively within half a mile of the school. So they are very familiar, just like everyone is in north Kensington, with living close to Grenfell Tower.”
Only six months after the fire, in which 71 people died, Ofsted rated KAA “outstanding”. Mr Benson said teachers were offered the chance to defer the inspection, but told him: “You must be joking.” He continued: “They felt their lessons were productive and purposeful and they had the facilities they needed, so why delay it?”
What followed was an exceptional Ofsted report that described the school’s achievements as “remarkable”. The school’s motto “intrepidus”, meaning to be bold and undaunted, is at the heart of everything, it said.
Mr Benson said: “This is a wonderful, vibrant, creative, proud, ambitious community. Students in our school do come in many cases from deprived backgrounds but they live in one of the most affluent, exciting parts of London and they are no stranger to that success. It’s all around them so they want that themselves, understandably.”
There is a specific way of organising lessons to get the most out of students. Pupils are given reading to do before lessons, so by the time they arrive in the classroom they know basic facts.
Students must also correct and redraft homework after it has been marked.
The school holds lectures every week, a practice more common in private schools, and speakers have included Mayor Sadiq Khan and Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel. Sixth formers talk animatedly about how these talks have inspired them, and there is a sense of optimism. But the school will always be linked to Grenfell, and counselling is available for any students who need it.
The Evening Standard‘s Dispossessed Fund has helped to pay for an in-house clinical psychologist. Mr Benson said: “Broadly speaking the school has very much carried on, with students focusing on their education. But of course in the background for students who have been particularly affected by the fire there has had to be extensive counselling and support.
“That therapist does really important work with a small group of targeted students, and that allows them to continue to focus on their education. The students know it’s there and they know if they are feeling upset in any way about what happened that they can access that support.”
The temporary school building has a dedicated memorial room where students can retreat to and a memory book. The space will be mirrored when the school returns home. A memorial service will also be held at a church next Saturday.
Mr Benson admitted that the weeks following the tragedy last June were particularly difficult. Pupils were split between two nearby schools for the final five weeks of the year, and the atmosphere was “inevitably quite subdued” until they moved into their temporary building in September. But he said: “There was a lot of coming together and support for each other in that time, and the school community in some ways was strengthened through that.”
That closeness is evident in the school’s offer to teenagers leaving for university this autumn. Instead of leaving the KAA family completely, they will be given a hotline to their teachers.Mr Benson said: “Data shows students coming from inner city sixth forms who get to leading universities may drop out. We will continue to support our students next year. They will still be able to talk to their teachers here. We won’t always be able to do that, but with this cohort we will.”