Case study: a new building

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Our new building opened last year after much agonising and planning.

Whereas more than half the school used to be in temporary classrooms, now only the nursery remains in huts. What a building too; in January, if you're up early enough, the sun casts stark, skeletal shadows of the winter trees on the white walls. It doesn't look like a school, more like a holiday villa, and we're all proud to be part of the achievement.

Living inside is another matter. The sprinkler system, for example, has already leaked four times since October. I begged and pleaded with the builders not to fit sprinklers, but modern regulations demand them. One weekend the water leaked into a cupboard, damaging hundreds of pounds'-worth of resources. We've had a lift fitted too. As one child suffered a broken leg a few weeks ago, we looked forward to moving the wheelchair between floors with the minimum of fuss. The fourth time we used the lift, it broke - between floors - and we were left with the tricky exercise of rescuing the occupants. The lift shaft caused another problem, when fumes kept setting off the smoke alarm. Several days were ruined with the inevitable ensuing fire practices.

But it's the ventilation system that has caused most problems. Whoever decided all this fresh air should be introduced into the classroom? Can't we just open the window? The gas bill for the old building, more than 90 years old, for the three winter months was pound;800. For the same period in the new building, which is the same size and with proper insulation, double-glazing and heavy fire doors in the corridors, it was a full pound;400 more. Everyone feels constantly chilly too - not surprising if you suck out all the warm air and replace it with a blast of cold in the middle of February. That air then has to be warmed.

We've never had so much sickness either, particularly for the poor teacher or pupil who sits under the fan. Any paper caught in the draught hovers on the desk before being dramatically swept to the floor. The machine that carries out this task cost pound;35,000. It is also incredibly noisy and drones on throughout the day, disturbing not only the teaching and learning, but also the neighbours, who complain constantly. They worry about their summer. Sipping dry martinis in the garden isn't quite the same with an incessant hum in the background.

Don't get me wrong, the false ceilings and the carpeted floors have made a difference to the general level of extraneous sound and the pupils concentrate more fully as a result. As the screed was not dry when the new building was opened, the builders laid temporary carpet in the corridors.

For a time, pupils appeared to creep about and slip into class without any fuss or noise. But the vinyl's now down and normal service has resumed.

Primary schools are noisy places. From corridor to dining room, sound reverberates with the clatter of plastic plates, of knives and forks, scraping tables and chairs. Pupils feel they have to climb above the noise with their own. How can you digest food in the resulting cacophony? The chances to reflect in a truly, tranquil environment are few and far between. In a moment grabbed recently - I always insist on silence during my brief writing sessions - a pupil wrote: "What I value most is my beating heart and my whispering soul." This was penned within those treasured moments of quiet. Yet even this perfect interlude was punctuated by the hideous screech of a faulty paper trimmer being used in the classroom next door.

Bob Fletcher is head of Hobbayne primary school, London borough of Ealing

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