Changing rooms

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Out went the dingy, cramped spaces. In came a cerise breakfast bar and furniture in the shape of fruit. Biddy Passmore reports on a magical transformation

How about this for a fairytale? A makeover that took less than a week, transformed two vital parts of a school and made teachers and pupils happy ever after. You don't believe it? Well, it gets even more improbable because everything went according to plan, with the materials and workmen arriving when they said they would.

The final proof it couldn't be true: it cost the school and its local authority nothing (no money, that is, but quite a lot of telephoning, heaving of furniture and fittings, and flatpack assembly).

Yet this is what happened at the end of June at Liscard Primary School in Wallasey on Merseyside. And the fairy godmother was the unromantically named British Council for School Environments (BCSE), a charity that gives advice on school building and design.

The council's director, Ty Goddard, was looking for a dramatic way to mark National School Environments Week (June 25-30, in case you missed it). What better than a Changing Rooms-style makeover to show what could be done starting on the Monday and revealed to the world on Friday? BCSE members, who include construction companies, architects and designers, would donate their costs.

Wirral education authority, with whom the council had been working on a major secondary school building project, nominated Liscard Primary for the plan.

From the outside, it might not seem the ripest candidate for a makeover. It is a fine looking building with a large expanse of playing fields in front just the thing for a traditional grammar school.

But there's the snag. Liscard may have opened in 1911 as a grammar school, but it is now one of the largest primaries in the country. It has more than 670 pupils squeezed into the main school, their shouts and chatter bouncing off high ceilings never meant for the purpose. Not only are the rooms unsuited to teaching small children, many are also in a poor state of repair. For some years, the maintenance budget has been largely absorbed by the colossal cost of replacing high, multi-paned, sash windows.

Rose Littler, the school's energetic new head, jumped at the council's offer. But what areas should she choose for improvement? She knew Wirral council had already earmarked pound;150,000 over the coming year to extend the entrance and reception area, improve the playgrounds and tackle the "dreadful" toilet provision.

So she opted for two other areas that could be tackled quickly and where improvements would make a big difference to morale the tiny, dark library and the adjoining staffroom, which was so uninviting that many of the 100 or so staff avoided it.

"I felt if we chose the staffroom it would show that the staff were the most valuable resource in the school," says Rose. "Providing good facilities for them must produce a happier and more motivated workforce."

The main problem, according to Sharon Wright, the independent project manager brought in to run the makeover, was that the staffroom was far too small and uncomfortable for the dual purpose it was meant to serve: relaxation and work. Although the school already had a designated PPA (preparation, planning and assessment) room elsewhere, the old staffroom still contained a large and noisy photocopier.

What the staff wanted was a purely social space, a room where they could sit, rest and chat. They asked, among other things, for comfortable seats, tables to eat at, a breakfast bar, a better hot water dispenser, a flat screen TV, a sound system...

Well, they got most of them, although the TV and sound system will have to wait for another day.

In a four-day blitz, a door which connected the library to the staffroom was closed off to create more usable space (for both rooms), a new kitchen installed and a cerise-coloured, curved feature wall built that contains a breakfast bar and also separates the kitchen.

The walls have been repainted, new lighting and flooring installed (carpet in the lounge areas, wood in the cafe space and vinyl in the kitchen) and there is new furniture throughout: sofas for relaxing, tables and chairs for the cafe and stools for the coffee bar. And bubbling away is a new water heater which provides 40 cups of tea or coffee at a time.

"It's like a bistro," says Rose. "It's had a tremendous impact. It's now a work-free zone teachers really do go in there to chill out. Before, they didn't go in there much they were happier sitting in their classroom. And the children have noticed the staff are happier, too."

As for the library, it has been transformed from an uninspiring, cramped, noisy, poorly-lit space to a lighter, brighter, quieter environment, with acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling to deflect noise reverberation. There are green and yellow tables in the shape of fruit, a large table with four concealed flat screen PCs which rise up at the push of a button (courtesy of Westland Helicopters) and bookcases that spell LEARN (but do not, alas, hold enough books the school will have to pay for more shelving.)

And that's without all the extras that Rose and her senior management team charmed out of local business during a telephone marathon. Crockery and cutlery for the staffroom were donated by the local branch of Asda, for example.

In fact, the whole exercise has been an eye-opener to the school. It was not achieved without effort: staff stayed late on Thursday and arrived at dawn on Friday to put the finishing touches to both rooms. But it has given them all a boost to realise how much can be done in a short space of time and how willing the local community is to pitch in.

"It shows how an old building, looking tired and dishevelled, can be changed very quickly into a 21st-century environment," says Rose. "The senior management team was involved in all the decision making and designs and really felt part of a team. It was not something done to us it was something we were personally involved in."

Rose says the schools would be happy to work again with the companies involved, including Thorpe Kilworth, the designer, and Willmott Dixon, the main contractor. "Work got done when they said it would be and they were tidy and clean.

"And the project enlightened us about the possibilities of approaching a range of different companies in the local community for help with meeting the needs of children. There's no harm in asking people they can only say no."

"The school got a few bobs' worth," says Mike Woosey, Wirral borough's principal officer for school buildings, with quiet satisfaction (actually some pound;40,000-worth, according to BCSE estimates). "The end result is absolutely superb."

He played his part: on site most days, checking all was going well (a health and safety officer was down there, too) and staying until late into the night on Thursday to help assemble the flatpack furniture. "I told them I was used to that and I got lumbered," he says resignedly.

Now that library and staffroom are done, the council can get to work on the school hall, he adds. And Wirral will be happy to use contractors involved with the makeover.

"We might do it again," says the BCSE's Ty Goddard.

"Or LEAs could."

As we said, a fairytale


Library * Monday: Strip out and block doorway with stud partition * Tuesday: Decoration * Wednesday: Acoustic and carpet * Thursday: Electrician and furniture * Friday: Reveal

Staffroom * Monday: Strip out * Tuesday: Fit kitchen and form curved partition * Wednesday: Fit light diffusers, decorate and tile splashback * Thursday: Fit new floor * Friday: Reveal

BCSE consultants were on hand all week to discuss with pupils and staff how to create a more sustainable environment and how to make best use of external learning spaces.

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