Constructive criticism

18th February 2011 at 00:00
A school is more than the sum of its physical parts. But roofs, floors and walls (in some cases temporary and in others absent altogether) can have an enormous impact on learning experience. Gerald Haigh reports on how The TES built up a century of coverage

Sometimes, coming home from a night out, I would turn into the school where I was the head and drive around the site, shining my headlights into dark corners. I never caught an arsonist or a burglar, but it was a measure of how much worries about the building weighed on me.

The importance of the school environment and how it affects pupils has been a recurring theme in The TES. Behind every episode in the history of school buildings, you would surely find - were you to look - a worried, and sometimes distraught, headteacher.

All too often the story is of tension between visions and budgets. In the early 1920s, it was the "Geddes Axe", named after the chairman of the committee on national expenditure, Sir Eric Geddes, who made swingeing public spending cuts. Today, it is the Coalition government's decision to cancel the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Investment (or the lack of) in school buildings has been a long-time political hot potato.

In 1930, The TES reported on a spat over the proposed new Ballymacash Primary, in Northern Ireland, where architects claimed they were being asked to build to price rather than to a standard. Their concerns proved largely unfounded as the building - opened in 1931 - is still in use.

Earlier, in July 1924, The TES had been outraged by parsimonious government guidance on new schools. In an article headed "Classes and Classrooms", the writer, by-lined "A Correspondent", lays into Circular 1325 of the Board of Education, which assumed that small children would need less space than big ones.

Secondary schools already provided 18ft2 of classroom space per child, and the circular proposed 10ft2 per elementary school child, and just 9ft2 for infants. Surely, argued The TES writer, small children need the opportunity to jump and climb and swing, and freedom to wander, exploring their surroundings and learning from what they find.

"All this needs more than nine square feet of floor space per child: more than one miserable square yard for him to stand upright or revolve in or, sitting in his hard seat, fall asleep," it said.

The TES was also prescient in its belief in how classrooms would need to expand in line with the requirements of technological innovation.

"Ideals in education change so rapidly that today's practice might well be obsolete tomorrow ... The cinema, broadcasting, the gramophone, concerts, recitals and lantern lectures all enter more and more into school work."

Exactly the same demand for space and flexibility, with an eye on emerging technologies, is leading to developments such as "learning plazas". Some have giant screens, such as the ones at Abersychan School described in TES Cymru in October 2009. Live news is constantly being streamed on one wall, while broadcasts from the school's television studio are shown on another.

Sometimes the link between the learning environment and pupil welfare is more direct and physical, however. In May 1915, a TES article described these "buildings", with balconies and open sides, as being for "physically defective and delicate children". Looking back, we can see that the problems were more to do with malnutrition and overcrowding than the building itself, and by the 1960s antibiotics and better nutrition were making them redundant.

In 1998, former pupils still had vivid memories of the schools. "I used to go on the tram from Balsall Heath, we had tokens for the fare," remembered one former pupil. "We'd have breakfast of bread and milk or porridge. After morning lessons, we went to the resting shed, it was open all round, but there were boxes with blankets and pillows. We had to lie on the camp beds - they were canvas - and rest. You couldn't read or anything. Then after an hour, we had our lunch."

However anachronistic this type of school may seem today, the idea that fresh air is good for children has not disappeared. The forest school movement has received a great deal of positive coverage, including an article I wrote in May 2004 about Duffryn Infants in Monmouthshire, where children, in all weathers, "whittle sticks, find bugs, hide behind trees and seek wood for a fire". More recently, The TESS reported on an outdoor learning scheme in Clackmannanshire that is improving learning and behaviour. "The combination of fresh air and natural daylight creates a more stimulating environment that naturally engages children and has been shown to have a positive impact on long-term memory", the manager said.

Inside or out, there is no doubt that a poorly built environment can have a detrimental impact on learning. In a May 2008 opinion piece, Christopher Holligan, a senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of Scotland, wrote: "We risk conditioning generations of pupils coming through the school gates daily to believe that what they do there is not valued because where they do it is in poor shape." He argued that we suffered from a kind of "architectural schizophrenia", where we recognise the importance of the buildings we live in, but not of those our children learn in.

But even inspirational school architecture can leave later generations with problems, as authorities and governors face a "rebuild or refurbish" dilemma.

In March 2010, TES Magazine investigated schools facing this problem. Among them were High Storrs School in Sheffield, whose Grade II-listed building will this year emerge from a refurbishment started before the Government proposed to axe BSF. The Bexley Business Academy seemed to represent the schools of the future when it was opened by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003. But its open-plan building, designed by Sir Norman Foster, proved too noisy and its high-tech mock trading floor swiftly fell out of use.

What of BSF itself? "The tender process was ruinously expensive, the bureaucracy Byzantine, and the savings from axing it are potentially enormous," wrote TES editor Gerard Kelly in July last year.

For many schools, the cancellation of the programme will mean wringing more life out of temporary buildings. Throwing huts at the problem has been a coping mechanism since the 1940s. The end of the Second World War heralded a rise in the school leaving age from 14 to 15 and an increase in secondary education - all set out in a ministry circular, reported by The TES in June 1945. A month later, the paper gave space to architect Richard Sheppard, who warned against cheap, prefabricated buildings that would be expensive to maintain and difficult to adapt.

Inevitably, the huts arrived in abundance. First, in 1947, came the HORSAs (Hutting Operation for the Raising of the School-leaving Age). From then on "temporary" classrooms were here to stay. There then followed a post-war baby boom, along with another rise in the leaving age to 16 in 1972, plus the challenge of providing non-selective secondary schooling.

In March 1974, The TES carried an article entitled "Boom Time for Mobiles". More than 30 years later, it reported that there were 14,000 temporary classrooms in England and Wales, many of which must still be in use, contributing to today's array of palaces, slums and encampments.

Mr Sheppard went on to become Sir Richard Sheppard CBE, architect of 80-plus schools. But his words in 1945 still ring true. "Buildings of a poor character, without dignity both of siting and material, are less likely to provide an affective background to education and to the new importance it must possess in our life."

The attention that is still paid to school buildings - and the controversy they court - shows how much this holds true more than 65 years later. But while everyone agrees on the importance of the physical structure, consensus on what makes a good school building is as far away as agreement on what makes a good curriculum.


A letter, 1 March 1924, signed "Magister", on the problems faced by a small rural CofE school

"The building consists of one large room and five smaller classrooms. The lighting, heating and sanitary arrangements are quite inadequate ... The temperature of most of the rooms during the recent cold spell varied from 35 degrees to 50 degrees in the vicinity of the stoves and must have been considerably lower in the seats at the back of the room, adjacent to a long outside wall facing north ...

There is no water of any kind either for washing, drinking or purposes of sanitation and it is only by the kindness of an adjacent farmer that the sanitary refuse can be disposed of ...

As time goes on the conditions become worse ... and the devious and circumlocutory paths that have to be traversed before the local education authority decides what is 'fair wear and tear' make one despair of ever achieving educational efficiency ..."

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