Temporary classrooms have an image problem. Some people like them, but those stuck in them for years often have nothing kind to say. Teachers'
complaints focus on temperature, acoustics, how hard it is to stick things on the walls. Pupils, on the other hand, tend not to mind them. The consensus seems to be that these structures are fine as long as they're used as a temporary solution.
TP Riley community school in Bloxwich, Walsall, is in temporary accommodation for 20 months while a new school is being built. The headteacher, Christine Wayment, says the rooms are light and pleasant, and that the noise problem is reduced by carpeting. "We had soundproofing for the practical areas," she says, "but the children respond to the brightness of the environment."
Last year, in Newbury Park in Redbridge, north-east London, Oaks Park high school was built entirely of Portakabins in just eight weeks - and it works very well. The school was to have been housed in a cluster of futuristic buildings last September, but a breakdown in the decision-making chain prevented the start of building work. Last May, four firms specialising in temporary classroom building were asked to submit plans for a school by September. Two could not guarantee the date and one could not do the job at all, so the contract went to Portakabin. The firm had never built a school before, but it gave guarantees on finishing. The order was placed at the end of May and the school was ready and fitted on time, and there was even time to involve the pupils and teachers in the planning process.
There are 180 Year 7 pupils at Oaks Park; in six years there should be 1,500 in all age groups. Meanwhile, it is business as usual in temporary classrooms that are so ingeniously joined together that you do not even get wet moving between them.
Steve Wilks, the headteacher, is delighted. "There are some excellent facilities," he says. "In the circumstances, what we've got is nice, and in the time available it was an outstanding job."
The school has rooms for IT, food technology, art and design and technology. There is also a science lab, a library, a school hall with a kitchen, facilities for music and special needs, a good staffroom at the centre of the school, changing rooms, offices and prep rooms as well as toilets for students and staff.
The greatest noise is noticed when children walk along the wide corridors, and there are also some acoustics problems between the enormous classrooms. On the other hand, all the staff praise the spaciousness of the new structure.
"It is perfectly functional, which is more than you can say for many schools," says Virginia Catlin, a teacher at the school. "It allows you to do everything you could possibly want to do - and in comfort as well."
A mildly entertaining feature is that some heavy equipment - woodwork benches, for example - have to be screwed down because the temporary construction creates a spring in the floors and heavy furniture hops about if it's not bolted down. But Steve Wilks praises "the totality of the fitting service".
All classes carry on exactly as they would in a permanent structure and at lunchtime the children have many activity options, including working on their school newsletter in the computer room and playing chess practically anywhere. They eat in the school hall, and teachers comment on the exceptional noise level created by the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the building.
The sudden creation of this school has had some unexpected benefits, too. The pupils enjoyed watching the buildings being lifted in by crane. The project pulled the school community together. On discovering that there would be no school to house their children in the autumn term, parents were in initially up in arms, says Steve Wilks. But the crisis soon generated "terrific parental support", he says. There were meetings and support groups and there is now a weekly newsletter.
Temporary buildings are generally leased for between 13 weeks and five years, although their design life is said to be much longer. With fluctuations in school rolls and sudden changes in numbers, there would seem to be a healthy future for this type of accommodation.
Perhaps there is no getting away from the fact that temporary accommodation looks unprepossessing from the outside. Inside, though, teachers have few caveats, and the temporary structures seem to work very well. At Oaks Park, Spark, the school magazine asked head of year Brian Deal whether he would change anything about the mobile classrooms.
"No," he replied. "I think they are perfect in every way."