A stable learning environment

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Schools were grim places before 1870, until an enlightened architect appeared, reports Adi Bloom
Schools were grim places before 1870, until an enlightened architect appeared, reports Adi Bloom

The layout of schools is generally taken for granted - a playground, assembly hall and a collection of classrooms. But, until relatively recently, playgrounds were unheard of, halls considered downmarket and classrooms were converted barns, living rooms or stables.

Jacob Middleton, an historian at Birkbeck College, London, has been researching the development of school architecture. He says many features regarded today as integral to school buildings were almost unknown 150 years ago.

In 1870, the Government's Education Act established 1,200 school boards, each responsible for their local, state-funded schools. Until the introduction of these boards, Victorian schools were often run from whatever space was available.

One inspector reported that a London school was "at one time used as a stable ... 50 children crowded together in a small, dingy, shapeless room with space for 16."

The School Board of London, responsible for 500 schools, engaged architect Edward Robson to develop an efficient, purpose-built school building. The resulting 'Queen Anne' style was subsequently copied across the country.

"He saw the architecture of a school as an expression of educational theory," said Mr Middleton. "He wanted to create an environment that actively aided the learning of the people inside it."

Classrooms were to be specifically designed to enhance learning. So Robson proposed that windows should always be to the left of pupils. This would prevent pupils casting a shadow over their work as they wrote.

Similarly, windows should not face the teacher's desk, to prevent chalkface squinting.

Proposals for ventilation were also thorough. The Government mandated that all pupils should have 90 cubic feet of space to themselves in order to improve air flow through the classroom. Robson suggested the best way to ensure this was to build high ceilings.

"More floor space can be expensive," said Mr Middleton. "But high ceilings are just a few extra bricks. It also allows you to have bigger windows. So that's why we have very, very tall Victorian schools."

Initially, schools were designed without a communal hall. The concept of an all-school assembly was relatively unknown, and the extra space was an additional expense. "Prussian schools had a big hall. But that was looked down on by school boards at first."

Later, school boards deemed it useful to have a large space to address the children collectively, and incorporated either a hall or wide corridors into their designs.

Some regions resisted such foreign ideas, however. Areas of Cornwall and Lancashire were still building schools without assembly halls in the 20th century.

Robson also proposed that schools should not open directly on to the street. Instead, they should be separated by railings, a hedge or a fence.

"This was space where children could play safely, under the jurisdiction of the school," said Mr Middleton. "And the playground was seen as a place where children could learn discipline autonomously."

This was considered a radical policy: acquiring additional land was so expensive that some school boards resorted to building playgrounds on the roofs of the school buildings to save money.

"The architects wanted the space to be well-designed and healthy," said Mr Middleton.

"They would protect the children in a modern building, very unlike the slums many of the pupils were living in."

'The ornamental school: power and beauty in late-Victorian school architecture', by Jacob Middleton, will appear in the journal 'History of Education Researcher'.

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