ON THE morning of the fire at Grenfell Tower, in west London, in June, the Principal of the Church of England Ark Burlington Danes Academy, Michael Ribton, was awoken in the early hours by the constant ringing of the phone.
Parents and colleagues of the school in White City, less than a mile away from the blaze, were phoning, telling him to switch on the television, as news of the fire, which was to destroy the residential tower block, killing at least 80 people, shook the community (News, 16 June, 23 June).
Among the early-morning callers was David Benson, the Principal of Kensington Aldridge Academy (KAA), which sits directly under the shadow of Grenfell — less than 100 metres away. The school has 660 students, from Year 7 to sixth form. It was forced to close immediately, and indefinitely.
Mr Benson had called his fellow principal, Mr Ribton, to ask whether a group of Year 12 maths students at Kensington Aldridge, many of whom had been up all night watching events unfold, could take their 9 a.m. exam at Burlington Danes.
“Ordinarily, that is quite a big ask of a school, especially a secondary,” Mr Ribton said, “because a lot of your big spaces have gone for your own exams, but we did have the space; so I said yes, of course.
“David sent over a PDF of the exam paper, which we printed off here, and his students came. Many of them had been up all night, some were still in their nightwear; and obviously it was the end of a very long day and night for them. Physically, they were exhausted.”
BURLINGTON DANES is a primary, secondary, and sixth-form academy, with 1152 students. On a visit to the school in July, before the end of term, Mr Ribton tells me that he went on to offer his school to the pupils of Kensington Aldridge for the remainder of the summer term.
This was possible, he explained, only because Kensington Aldridge is a start-up, and therefore had only Key Stage 3 and Year 12 students, and because most of his own Year 11 and 13 pupils were already on study leave, freeing classroom space.
Ark Burlington Danes AcademyHelping hand: the Principal of the Church of England Ark Burlington Danes Academy, Michael Ribton“A smaller school could fit into ours,” he said. “It was remarkable how little learning time was lost. By the Friday, Kensington Aldridge were holding a series of special assemblies in our school, and, by the following Monday, all this had swung into action.”
Burlington Danes has four main buildings, and extensive playing fields. It has a primary school, which was added only two years ago, and has yet to reach capacity. Year 7 students of Kensington Aldridge are, therefore, able to occupy the top level of the building for the whole day.
Year 8 and 9 students must share, however, to avoid large numbers clashing at the school gate. Year 9 students come in for the morning, to make room for Year 8, who arrive after lunch and stay until 4.30 p.m. Both years are expected to work via a virtual learning centre during school hours spent at home.
All the teachers of Kensington Aldridge have also been accommodated. “That is a big positive,” Mr Ribton says. “There must be 200 teachers on site, and promoting calm and hope is a key role for our profession, working with young people. The idea of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ might be a cliché now, but it is quite profound. It has also been nice to make new friends.”
Plans are being made for Burlington Danes to host the pupils for the next academic year, but it has been a complicated process to organise, Mr Ribton says, since Kensington Aldridge are due to take on another year group in September.
The Secretary of Defence, Michael Fallon, has given permission for portable classrooms to be set up on Ministry of Defence scrubland adjacent to the Burlington Danes, to accommodate the extra pupils, and free their playing fields for sports fixtures. Had these been occupied by cabins, Burlington Danes might have sought extra space from Latymer Upper School, a private school in Hammersmith, which has playing fields next door.
“Kensington Aldridge want to get back into their school as soon as they can, but there are several considerations — not least that towering over their school, a road’s width away, is Grenfell Tower, which may be emotionally difficult for many of their pupils and staff,” Mr Ribton said.
“To move into a Portakabin village is also a complex feat. You cannot do that in a weekend; so you are only likely to move back into the school when there is a longer holiday, probably the Easter or summer break, to avoid giving students more time off. They want to keep the school as a place of safety and calm, but also of learning.”
ARK Burlington Danes AcademySupport: the Principal, Michael Ribton, with pupils from Ark Burlington Danes AcademyTHREE months after the fire, the number of people who were killed is still unclear. The coroner has identified at least 66 people, including all of the children the police listed as missing from the tower. The youngest was six months old. Many more — possibly hundreds — are still unaccounted for, presumed dead.
Meanwhile, the lives of those who survived have been turned upside down. Many families are still without a permanent home or school. And, although the shock and grief may be beginning, for some, to subside, the longer-term emotional, psychological, and practical disruption to families and the surrounding community is ongoing.
Education has been a main concern. Pupils in primary schools near by had to be moved from their classrooms after becoming distressed at the sight of the blackened shell of Grenfell through the windows. And several teenagers who had managed to escape the tower were in the middle of GCSE or A-level exams: some of them were due to take exams that morning.
They included pupils from Kensington Aldridge: five of its students are still listed as missing. Two Burlington Danes students were also listed as living in the tower. One, a boy in Year 11, had moved to another home with his family before the fire, because he had suffered an attack in the building, and did not want to return, Mr Ribton said.
Another student, a girl who had recently arrived from Syria, managed to escape with her mother, disabled father, and two sisters. They have been relocated to a hotel.
“She arrived with nothing, and now has nothing again,” he said. “We have been giving the family some financial support, and our Muslim teachers have provided some Islamic clothes. The task now is to get them into permanent accommodation near this school, where she has begun to make friends and feel more confident. It would be upsetting to rehouse her in a different area.”
Many of Mr Ribton’s students had friends and relatives living in Grenfell, some of whom have been identified as victims or missing, presumed dead. He said that several students were also outside the tower as it burned, “hearing the screams” and speaking to friends on the top floor via social-media channels, such as Snapchat, which deletes chat, pictures, and videos within a few seconds of being read.
“On that morning, the wind was in this direction, the smoke was drifting over, and smut was landing in our school. We have had enquiries from relatives asking what their family members who are no longer here said, that night,” he said.
Burlington Danes already works with the social-justice charity West London Action Zone, which supports vulnerable students. One of its partners, Place2Be, which offers mental-health support for young people, has bolstered its numbers on site since the disaster.
ARK Burlington Danes AcademyCaring community: Ark Burlington Danes Academy“It has more than doubled its provision,” Mr Ribton said, “which was necessary, because, on top of Grenfell, our primary head teacher sadly passed away. It is not just the students who have accessed that level of support, but staff and parents as well.”
Mr Ribton, who has taught in the area for more than 30 years, has recognised faces of former students among the 66 victims identified so far, from his time at Holland Park School. He emphasised the importance of community schools in such times.
“Good schools do more than enrich the individual lives of students: they build and enrich the community they serve, and that is an important part of being a community school. I am happy to be helping this community, and the students here are very proud that their school is at the forefront of giving something back.”
Together with many churches, community centres, and schools in the area, Burlington Danes became a collection point for donations. There were just a few bags of items left by the end of term, down from hundreds within two days of the fire. The donations had been sorted and distributed to families and relatives, and then foodbanks. The remaining few will be given to charity.
“Students — some of whom have hard, difficult, and challenging lives — had gone to places like Primark and bought the same shoe in about five different sizes, or bought a whole load of toiletries using money they don’t have, to support the people in their community. It was very humbling.”
POLITICISATION of the disaster has not necessarily come from the affected communities, Mr Ribton says; and parents, like everyone else, are still in shock.
“The general narrative is probably that if the result of this fire means that people live in better-quality housing; that this completely disgraceful juxtaposition of wealth against poverty, that gap, is considered; and that schools think about child mental health a lot more, then, although it is very early to talk about positive outcomes, at least there is some legacy which is positive.”
None the less, even when the wreckage of Grenfell Tower is eventually covered and demolished, its absence will leave a “deep scar” in Kensington, he says. “The tower is a brutally stark monument to everything that is wrong with society — that people should live like that, and that in the modern era a building can burn as violently as it did, in such a destructive way.”
But the motto of Kensington Aldridge is “Intrepidus”, and Burlington Danes holds to the same principle of fearlessness in adversity, Mr Ribton says.
“It is a very strong team of staff: the senior leadership team are great, and everyone is on board what we are trying to do for our pupils. Adopting Kensington Aldridge pupils is a natural extension of this — and they could easily be our pupils. The diverse demographic is virtually identical.”
Besides adopting Kensington Aldridge for the next academic year, Burlington Danes has also hosted a summer school on the site, run by a training initiative for young people, Future Foundations.
“I think it will be very positive,” Mr Ribton says. He acknowledges the challenge of having about two weeks to get the school ready for the new year. “We will rise to it, as we have done before.”