Bleak, ugly and brutal

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Set against the extravagances of Holyrood, the appearance of many of Scotland's schools is a national disgrace, says William Stewart

Winston Churchill once said that "people shape their buildings and afterwards their buildings shape them". I hope he is wrong. Many of the buildings which constitute our places of learning are from the bleak and brutal school of architecture with unimaginative designs and cheap materials. They are uninviting, uninspiring and unworthy of the children and staff who attend them.

Secondary school buildings, being larger and more complex, are generally more unsightly than primary school buildings, although the appearance of many of the latter leave a lot to be desired. Even small country schools, in picturesque villages, have been built from cheap materials and unimaginative designs.

I recently enjoyed a touring holiday in Austria and was impressed by well-built schools with wonderful paintings on the external walls. In Scotland, the key decisions behind the construction of our schools seem to be that they should be built as cheaply and as unimaginatively as possible.

Nearly pound;500 million was easily found for a national parliament but funds for visually interesting and inspirational school buildings are less forthcoming.

Poorer areas, I am afraid to say, get the worst deal of all. The physical appearance of some schools is a national disgrace.

During the past six months, I have visited more than 300 schools. I am not a member of some HMI surprise inspection squad but a mere delivery person, conveying books from publisher to school, who is able to offer some perceptions on the appearance of our places of learning and the sort of welcome they provide for parents and other visitors.

Signposting, or the lack of it, is one area I am well qualified to comment on. Many schools have no useful signs pointing out which of their many entrances is most appropriate for visitors to use. Signposts are either absent or difficult to comprehend. A common situation is that a school will have a sign informing visitors to report to the school office but offer no clues as to where the office is. One school has the headteacher's office, according to the direction arrows, up in the heavens. I reckon that at least six out of 10 secondary schools have unsatisfactory signs for parents and other visitors.

The state of school foyers, I am relieved to state, is generally good. Most are welcoming places with the work of pupils displayed prominently.

Primaries are generally better than secondaries, although some secondaries have excelled in the amount of attention they give to this critical part of the school building. One secondary school in Edinburgh has a truly wonderful entrance with photographs and examples of pupils' work. It also has a large plasma screen providing a continuous display of pictures of pupils happily engaged in a variety of learning activities. Other schools, however, have made little attempt to provide such a positive first impression for the visitor.

The staff who greet visitors in our schools are friendly and helpful.

During my 300 school visits, I only encountered one member of staff who deserved criticism. It was at a primary school in a leafy suburb of Glasgow where the member of staff, on playground supervision, sat on a seat in the centre of the playground and puffed her way through a packet of cigarettes while the children played around her. Our HMIs, I bet, never get to see such practices.

But let me end on a positive note. The new schools which have been built in recent years have helped to raise the overall standard. But not by much.

The architecture is only slightly better than that of the schools they replaced and falls far short of what it should be for such vitally important buildings.

I have deliberately refrained from naming schools, but I would like to make one exception. Beath High in Cowdenbeath is a wonderful new building with a fresh and airy Scandinavian-style design which is just right for its semi-rural setting. The spacious, and clearly signposted, foyer is a model for others.

Bleak and brutal do not have to be the keywords for Scotland's school buildings.

William Stewart works for a publisher delivering textbooks to schools.

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