A DEVASTATING fire wiped out a beloved arts block at Lytchett Minster School yesterday, as horrified students and staff watched on.

The blaze, believed to have been caused by a lightning strike, destroyed the entire three-storey arts building at the Purbeck secondary school, including students’ artwork and coursework for their GCSEs and A-levels.

More than 60 firefighters from across Dorset, Hampshire as well as Devon and Cornwall were sent to the school just after 7am to tackle the blaze, which started in the roof and quickly spread to the rest of the building.

Dave Arundel, Christchurch fire station commander said: “This is probably the largest school fire of its kind we've had to deal with.

“The building is lost.

“Many of the students and teachers have been here and seen the devastation and simply fallen to their knees to see their work and classrooms going up in flames.

“Initially, crews saw flames from the roof so we believe this to be a lightning strike.

“Although it is a scene of devastation, it is also a big relief that it was not term time with students in the grounds or buildings.”

Devastated students and staff were in tears as they watched the building, which only opened in 2009, burn.

Head teacher Stuart Clark said he arrived at the school to see a huge plume of smoke billowing from the roof of the beloved arts block, which contained the 450-seat Gainsford Theatre, art rooms, music rooms, dance studios and drama rooms.

Speaking to the Daily Echo he said: “I am devastated by it. It is the building which is the most loved in the school.

“This has happened to us before and we are now scouring the whole country trying to find temporary accommodation. The problem is the arts block is so specialist it is going to be difficult.

“There were arts rooms, dance spaces. It was a building we were all very proud of.

“We do of course have some experience of rebuilding after a fire, and it is that determination and spirit which is encouraging us at the moment.

“We have kept the school running and improving in difficult circumstances before and we will persevere with that now.”

Residents said the smoke from the blaze could be seen up to 10miles away.

Local resident and school governor Liz Allen said: “This is absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to the school.

“We were on the verge of new building and expansion. It's just devastating after the last fire. I can't believe it's happened again.”

Nigel Wright, father of former Lytchett student Suzanne Wright, 19, told the Daily Echo his daughter was “totally devastated” by the fire.

“Suzanne left last year but all her work is there. It has been on display and kept for record. She was going to pick it up a couple of weeks ago”, he said.

“All her A-level work – four years of hard work just gone.”

Photography student Laura Collins, 17, said: “This is my last year. All my coursework and final pieces were in there, work I had spent years on.

“The building was my second home; I spent so much time there.”

George Woods, 17, a Year 12 A-level Music pupil, said: “All my work was in that building. It’s just so shocking. I just want to know what’s going to happen. How are people going to do their A-levels?”

Hannah Ewers, 16, said she saw all her coursework go up in flames.

“My final piece of work for my textiles course was in the part of the school that has been destroyed, and I'm pretty sure my written work and log book for the BTEC would have been in there too.

“It's devastating but what can you do? I will just have to start again.

“We live in the village so we heard the big bang when lightning hit the school.

“We went up to the school and we were just watching bits of it fall. It was terrible.”

Lytchett Minster School has reassured students who are concerned about the loss of their coursework.

A statement on the school’s website said: “We have good records of this work; please be sure that we will handle this with the exam boards and are confident of sympathetic approach from them.”

The statement confirmed the fire at the Arts block and the Gainsford Theatre was caused by a “massive lightning strike”.

It reads: “As a result, the whole block has been destroyed.

“We have dealt with this sort of emergency before and are determined to minimise the impact on students’ education and keep the school developing and improving despite this, to ensure that our young people’s experience remains outstanding.”

The school will not be open for the first two days of term except for staff and a phased return may be required after this.

Parents and students will be kept up to date via the school website and Parentmail.

See our coverage of the blaze as it happened in our live blog

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