DEVASTATED schoolchildren will be starting their new term at Tytherington High on Tuesday in mobile classrooms and amid charred debris after Sunday's £1m arson attack in which an entire block was gutted by mindless louts.
Pupils - new and existing - will be greeted by a shameful sight which has already reduced devastated staff to tears.
It could have been far worse. Hero fire fighters contained the blaze just seconds from it spreading into an adjoining lab lock-up storing highly inflammable chemicals which could have exploded.
As it was, the fire destroyed 18 classrooms and gutted the whole art department, which was celebrating a phenomenal 97 per cent A*-C success rate - the highest throughout the school.
The rest of the building had a narrow escape as firecrews worked tirelessly for eight hours to put out the inferno, which began at 8.30pm.
Fire fighters managed to control the 20ft-high flames just before they entered the science preparation room, where highly flammable liquids were stored. A fireman attending the scene said: "It's what we call a good stop. That fire could have spread throughout the rest of the school quite easily."
Police are currently checking the extensive CCTV footage from the back of the school and are searching for five youths aged between 15 and 17, four of them on bikes.
The youngsters were seen loitering at the back gate of the school between 8-9pm and on the Middlewood Way shortly after the fire started, and police are appealing for any witnesses to help them with their inquiries.
Chillingly, the attack took place literally yards from Oldham Rise where firebugs struck last year, killing famous food author Miriam Poulin, 59. Geoffrey MacDougal, who admitted manslaughter, is currently serving life for a crime which was said to be motiveless manslaughter.
High School bosses only have five days in which to sort out temporary accommodation before staff and the 1,250 students return from their summer holidays.
Head of science Mike Hutchison, who fought back tears as he viewed the damage for the first time, said: "All that success and now there's nothing left of the department - this is just a disaster. All the AS work for next year's A-levels is in those four art rooms and will be lost forever."
Furious headteacher Andrew Robinson, who rushed to Manchester Road from his Chester home after hearing the news, said: "This isn't a crime against me, or any other member of staff - it's a crime against the kids and they will be outraged by it.
"Janet Gould (head of art) has been in and salvaged a few pieces of work from the gutted rooms and is bearing up at the minute. She is an experienced professional, but is obviously devastated."
Twenty-foot flames lit up Manchester Road on Sunday night as ten fire crews, working in torrential rain, battled the inferno for more than EIGHT hours.
The blaze ripped through the four first-floor art classrooms before spreading to two upstairs science laboratories and engulfing the three-storey language and history block.
A hydraulic platform was used to floodlight the school and "punch" water through windows of the higher building, eventually bringing the fire under control at 5am the following morning.
John Boothby, watch commander at Macclesfield Fire Station, said: "We had to work in horrendous conditions. For a time, the rain was getting worse and worse and at 1am, just before the roof collapsed, it was bucketing it down. This is the most extensive fire we have had to deal with for quite a while. The ball of fire in the sky was huge."
Two fire investigation officers are examining evidence and police are treating it as arson.
Mike Hutchison, head of science, who has a son and daughter at the school, said: "The science preparation room is full of ethanol and alcohol. It's a good job the flames didn't get there or things would have been worse." Headteacher Andy Robinson said: "When I arrived you could see the flames from the main road and because of the damage we'll have to replace the classrooms - it's as simple as that.
"We are not a school that has accommodation spare - we are oversubscribed as it is.
"As usual, we will just get on with it and sort it out. The disappointing thing is that there is some kids' work in there.
"Now we need to inform the parents and the children when we have found out what we can still use and the county council needs to get a loss adjuster in."
- POLICE are appealing for witnesses to come forward if they saw anyone on Middlewood Way acting suspiciously between 8-9pm, or the youths on bikes. They should contact DS Dave Thornton or DC Tim Humpage on 01244 614620 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.