Because they're worth it: the #163;80m bespoke comp

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Roof terrace, designer chairs, swimming pool - but it's not the Hilton, it's a state school

The bespoke pupil chairs cost #163;335 each. The teacher versions, with armrests and padded seats, cost a cool #163;400. The staffroom has its own "housekeeper" who serves breakfast and lunch, and the basement houses a state-of-the-art 25m pool. Welcome to the new Holland Park School in West London, which at #163;80 million will become the most expensive mainstream state school when it opens later this month.

Once the flagship of the comprehensive school movement, Holland Park was nicknamed the "socialist Eton" because it was the school where left-wing politicians such as Tony Benn and Anthony Crosland chose to send their children.

Now the school's new building boasts chairs designed by award-winning furniture designer Russell Pinch - called the "Holland Park chair" - and 700 science lab stools that cost #163;286 apiece, with the school's name laser-etched on to each one.

The school's opening, which was delayed by more than a month due to late-running construction work, comes just weeks after the Department for Education announced guidelines for all future schools to be designed more cheaply.

Under the new "no frills" school design template, all curves are banned, while glazed walls and translucent plastic roofs are also outlawed. Far from #163;80 million, new secondaries are now expected to be built for closer to #163;12 million.

However, no such limitations were placed on Holland Park. Headteacher Colin Hall said the new school will send a message to its pupils that they are worthy of investment.

"We want our students to know this is all bespoke. It is not just a new building, it is a new start for the school. We are an outstanding school, but we see this as an opportunity to build on the culture we have here yet further," Mr Hall said.

"We wanted to build something that was not like a school," he added. "Of course, some things have to be in a school but you get some sense that we were giving our students something special."

No expense has been spared in the school's vast new building, from the swimming pool, dance studio and gym in the basement right up to the staffroom, with its Pinch-designed sofas and roof terrace on the top floor.

The price tag dwarfs even the most extravagant school buildings designed by star architects such as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster at the height of Labour's academy programme, which typically cost between #163;25 million and #163;35 million.

In this age of austerity, the bill for Holland Park has drawn criticism for its extravagance. Lauren Thorpe, a former secondary school head of department who is now research director at thinktank Reform, said it is more important to focus on what is going on inside the classroom than what it looks like.

"The cost of #163;80 million seems like an exceptionally large amount of money to be spent on a single school, particularly if you consider that schools in the future will now be built much more cheaply," Ms Thorpe said. "In terms of value for money, one school at #163;80 million is not it."

The rebuild was a result of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's decision to sell off part of the school's land for a residential development. The sale generated #163;105 million, which, as well as funding the #163;80 million Holland Park building, also paid for two social housing schemes for the council and contributed to the rebuild of another academy in the borough.

Town hall bosses said the deal to sell off the land was secured in 2005, when the country's financial situation was far more buoyant, and that the building of the school "had not cost the taxpayer a penny".

"The new Holland Park School was conceived and designed in a very different era, in an age when the financial situation - both locally and nationally - was very different," a spokesman for the council said. "From the outset, our intention was to build a fine school to a high specification.

"The new school was built while keeping the old one fully operational and without compromising the curriculum in any way; all that came with a considerable cost attached."

Sitting pretty

What the #163;80 million bought:

A six-storey, 36-classroom school for 1,350 pupils and 70 teachers.

New Russell Pinch-designed tables and chairs.

A 25m indoor swimming pool.

A fitness suite.

A staffroom with designer sofas and a "housekeeper".

What the #163;80 million could have paid for:

Three Mossbourne Community Academies designed by Richard Rogers (#163;25 million each).

Six 1,200-pupil secondary schools built under the DfE's new guidelines (#163;12 million each).

The annual salaries of nearly 3,000 newly qualified teachers.

The annual salaries of more than 1,000 secondary headteachers.

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