Bowing out with a final flagship

24th November 1995 at 00:00
Proud education authority chiefs call it a school for the new millennium. Iain Thorburn looks ata building that attracts visitors from around the world. St Margaret's Academy, Livingston, the first denominational secondary to be built in Scotland for a decade, is also the last school to be built under the auspices of Lothian Regional Council. The school opened just over a year ago, and represents the culmination of some 20 years' experiential learning by the region's property services department.

It is state-of-the-art design - or as Elizabeth Maginnis, chair of the region's education committee, writes in the brochure for the official opening, "the finest educational facility ever to be built in Scotland". Even the brochure won a design award.

Mrs Maginnis stated: "Many, many visitors from home and abroad will visit St Margaret's Academy and will marvel at the daring concept and grand design of this, a school for the new millennium." And they are indeed coming, from countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Taiwan and Denmark. So, rather more importantly, are those from "home" - the school's West Lothian community. For as Mrs Maginnis acknowledged, the new building's inauguration marked "the end of one of the most fiercely controversial political and educational debates ever to take place in Lothian".

St Margaret's was established in August 1993 by the amalgamation of St Mary's Academy, Bathgate, and Our Lady's High, Broxburn, and operated on a split site for a year while the new building was being completed.

The year was crucial to establishing an identity for St Margaret's, headteacher Tony Gavin says. He came from Dundee and his deputy, Tony Conroy, from Glasgow. They found a situation of bitter local rivalries which both found astonishing.

They responded by going out into the community for discussions with parents and other groups on their own home ground. That was mainly in the evenings. In working hours they insisted that, two sites or not, St Mary's and Our Lady's had become one school and would operate accordingly - on the playing-field as well as in the classroom.

Mr Gavin said: "At the meetings with parents, we were able to gauge what it was that we were in broad agreement about - what they, and we, wanted from this new school."

One outcome is school uniform, successfully introduced against a background of great scepticism. This reflects a degree of parental involvement that extended to participation with staff and pupils in drawing up the school's mission statement. St Margaret's has a school board, but not a parent-teacher association. Instead it has a school association, made up of parents, staff, former pupils and friends; interested adults, in short, who work to promote the well-being of the school and foster links with the community.

A community, then, has been united by pride in St Margaret's. The design of the school has played an important part in the process. The design brief from the property services department was simply stated: to make St Margaret's a warm, welcoming and flexible community resource.

At this stage, too, there was customer involvement: the most striking feature of the school is the central atrium, and six of its large floor panels were designed by primary pupils from the school's catchment area, in collaboration with a sculptor and a potter.

The atrium provides the largest of the school's social areas, and has played host to a variety of functions. It has proved particularly popular with local bands, both for practice and concerts, because of its superb acoustics.

The main users of the social areas, though, are the pupils, who also enjoy a courtyard with plant beds for which they are responsible, a chapel and a sixth-year common room that doubles as a cr che.

St Margaret's is not designated as a community school, but is used as widely by the community as the limitations of support staff allow. It has a 25-metre swimming pool (funded by Livingston Development Corporation) and an all-weather, floodlit playing area for football and hockey. These facilities, along with the games hall, fitness suite and dramadance studio, can be closed off from the rest of the building when being used for community purposes rather than PE.

Other features of the school include a television studio in which all the equipment is mobile. This is used in courses such as Standard grade English. One of Broxburn's more notable former pupils, Michael Caton-Jones, was contacted when filming Rob Roy, and agreed to be interviewed here, in a project that also involved some of his old school pals and former teachers.

The facilities, in short, are as impressive as might be expected from one of Lothian's new-generation showpiece schools. In this context its beating heart is technological. St Margaret's is on-line with a vengeance, and will be on the Internet as soon as it can be done securely.

Meanwhile, school meals are purchased with swipe cards and staff routinely use e-mail. As Elizabeth Reid, director of education, said in the brochure, St Margaret's "boasts perhaps the most comprehensive array of information technology of any school in the country". This includes a computerised energy management system in the janitors' room, which also contains the screens of the video security system. The building has not suffered as much as a broken window since it opened.

Mr Gavin said: "The building is very cost-effective in terms of space, time and energy. It is compact, but is coping comfortably with a roll that is rising faster than planned, and will soon reach the 900 it was designed for."

The question that may arise is how many more than 900 it can cope with. Schools have been known to become overcrowded, even in the days before parental choice and new towns.

St Margaret's cost more than Pounds 13 million, and the headteacher is fully aware that some teachers find it cramped rather than compact. Their classrooms may have computer terminals, but there is virtually no space for their professional chattels or for, say, group work. But they do have work stations in their departmental bases, and access to seminar rooms.

Their discontent may be no more than a passing regret for the surplus space they enjoyed in Bathgate and Broxburn. But it could reflect a lasting disgruntlement with some of the meanness that characterises the modern design of spaces for a public that is growing broader and taller. In St Margaret's, the corridors are so narrow that teachers try to operate them as one-way systems. They may be hard to convince that the ha'porth of tar was never cost-effective.

Meanwhile, within the city of Edinburgh, Leith Academy, St Margaret's predecessor as Lothian's showpiece, has been the subject of a post-occupancy evaluation, a commonly used tool in commercial premises since the early 1980s. The aim is a methodology that informs users how to improve their facilities, and also feeds into future design.

Lothian, with support from Grampian and Fife regions and the Scottish Office, pioneered application of the technique to schools three years after Leith Academy opened.

Unfortunately, thanks to local government reform, the results are some way from being finalised. But somewhere in the pipeline there is a formula that will help schools (perhaps even St Margaret's) get rid of their built-in niggles.

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