Arsonist Ashley Rees was spared jail after a judge heard he had been encouraged to set fire to Downland School in Devizes by his biological mother.

Rees, 20, of Curzon Close, Calne, pleaded not guilty to arson with intent to endanger life but guilty to simple arson when he appeared before Judge Andrew Barnett at Salisbury Crown Court on Monday.

The court heard Rees, who has never been a pupil at the school for boys with emotional and behavioural problems, was with his natural mother and her friend when they went to the school on the night of September 26 last year.

Jenny Rickman, prosecuting, told the court fire crews were called to the school shortly after midnight, but by then the fire had dissipated. Window blinds and the windows were damaged after petrol was poured through an open window and ignited.

Boys sleeping in dormitories nearby had to be evacuated to another building.

Damage valued at £2,500 was caused.

Miss Rickman said Rees’s half brother had told a teacher that Rees was responsible. When interviewed on October 13, Rees admitted pouring the petrol through the window.

But Alex Daymond, defending, said Rees had had a very troubled past. His natural mother had set fire to their flat and Rees was put into foster care when he was four years old, he said.

A pre-sentence report from the Probation Service described Rees as lacking resilience, being suggestible and easily led. Mr Daymond added: “He has only recently been reunited with his natural mother and was seeking approval from her. He reluctantly went along with her and her friend to the school that night.

“He was under a tremendous amount of psychological pressure. He was bullied at school, and during most of his short time in the Army.”

The court was told no charges had been brought against Rees’s natural mother and her friend and neither the prosecution nor the defence lawyers could tell the judge why not.

Judge Barnett told Rees he was minded to send him to prison until he saw the unusual aspects of his case.

He said: “There is no doubt in my mind that people who commit arson on school buildings at night with an accelerant should go to prison.

“You stand in the dock alone but others should be with you, namely your natural mother and one other.”

Under the circumstances, Judge Barnett sentenced Rees to a year in prison, suspended for two years, and gave him a supervision order under which he must attend courses on drug and alcohol awareness and general behaviour. He made no order for costs or compensation.