As good as new

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Buildings rich in history are being lost as schools opt to rebuild rather than repair. But with draughty classrooms and impractical designs, who can blame them?

Nobody wants a beautiful, historic, functional school razed to the ground, right? Yet this was not enough to save Bonner Street Primary School in Bethnal Green, east London - built in 1876 and hailed as a prime example of Victorian design - from demolition in 2007.

It was not just because it was old, either. Schools built as recently as the 1980s have met a similar fate, according to English Heritage. At the moment, the critically acclaimed 1970s Pimlico School in central London (now an academy) is being demolished and rebuilt, despite the relatively low cost of repairing and upgrading it.

Elain Harwood, a historian at English Heritage, admits that Pimlico School - a brutalist mass of concrete and glass - has always divided opinion. "People either love it or hate it," she says. "You could see a lot of ideas in the building. We recommended it for listing but were turned down."

English Heritage is determined to prevent other architecturally important schools being bulldozed. In January, it ensured that 16 schools - nine in London and seven in Derbyshire - were Grade II listed, which should protect them from future demolition.

Its fear is that the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme is weighted in favour of rebuilds rather than refurbishments. To date, 70 per cent of completed BSF projects are new builds, according to a recent analysis by Building Design magazine. New builds tend to be seen as a less risky and more straightforward option.

"It's becoming more urgent," Ms Harwood says. "We get many requests from schools asking us to list them so they can avoid being demolished. We want to get the message out to local authorities that new does not necessarily mean better."

When the BSF scheme was launched in 2004, the Government wanted visually exciting new builds that would embody a brighter future, Ms Harwood adds. "There was a need for new academies in inner cities to have the wow factor. There wasn't the understanding that refurbishments could have a similar effect. We have to ask what are we losing in the drive to build all these shiny new schools?"

Schools that are partly rebuilt, refurbished or restored often offer the best of both worlds, she believes.

High Storrs Secondary School in Sheffield is a case in point. The main body is a much-loved 1930s Grade II listed building, but in the 1950s and 1960s extensions were added. The squat, indistinct add-ons are reminiscent of Prisoner Cell Block H, says Ray Everitt, the deputy head. When there is heavy rain, the flat roofs leak or rot. So he is delighted the additions are being knocked down, while the 1933 building is being refurbished.

"There's a saying here that if a window is open it's because it doesn't close, and if it's closed it's because it doesn't open. Just having working windows would help," he says.

As part of the pound;27 million project, the art deco library is being painstakingly restored. The double doors are in immaculate condition, but the parquet flooring needs a varnish and the 10 chandeliers will be regilded and fixed so they can replace the "horrid" neon strip lights. The names on the two war memorials also need to be made legible.

There has to be some quid pro quo, though. The science labs are not fit for purpose. Teachers have to stand on a raised platform in front of five two tonne wooden tables. Pupils on the longer, vertical tables cannot see the teacher without turning around, and the teacher has to check constantly they have not turned on the gas, electricity or water supplies that are fitted into the desks. To watch an experiment, pupils have to join the teacher at the front, rather than just swivel round.

"The rooms mitigate against creative, modern teaching," Mr Everitt says. "We've got the perfect 1930s labs, but not ones that meet the needs of the 21st century."

Despite a good working relationship with English Heritage, he admits to "lively discussions" with a local conservation group. "There has to be trust," says Mr Everitt, who has taught at the school for 35 years. "We're not architectural philistines and of course we want to keep our tradition and our heritage, but we know how classrooms work best. We need an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. Without that, everything falls apart."

It is a similar story at Lilycroft Primary School, a well-known Victorian landmark in Bradford. Built in 1874, it is one of the best examples in the UK of the rash of "board schools" that were built after the 1870 Elementary Education Act came into force. This guarantees it a Grade II listing.

Despite its blackened exterior, it has beautiful features inside, says Nicola Roth, the headteacher. But that does not always make it a comfortable or easy place to work.

Built as a first school for pupils aged up to nine, it is now a primary which includes 10- and 11-year-olds. But the key stage 2 classrooms are too small for older pupils and the hall cannot accommodate all 450 children.

In addition, the walls are so thick it is impossible to have a wireless connection in every classroom without dozens of routers, and it is virtually impossible to get the wiring through the stone dividing walls for interactive whiteboards. The high ceilings and framed metal windows make the building cold and draughty.

"It's a battle to get any planning permission, even for the internal walls," says Ms Roth. "It's an honour to be in a school that has been here for so many years, but we constantly have to negotiate between the interests of the pupils and the interests of the building."

Again, it comes down to trust. "English Heritage has to meet us halfway," she says. "It has to believe that we won't spoil the history or the look of the building, but we need to make alterations."

English Heritage insists it simply wants to preserve "a stimulating and beautiful environment" for pupils and local people. Refurbishment is a more popular, effective and environmentally friendly option than building anew, it adds. "It would be a shame if the Government's massive investment in school buildings ended up degrading them," says an English Heritage spokeswoman.

John Ridgley, head of Marion Richardson School in Tower Hamlets, east London, wishes such stringent checks had been in place in the 1970s. The changes to his 102-year-old board school threatened the look of the entire build. "I can't believe they managed to put that revolting brick and concrete slab up," he says of the toilet block. "It's an eyesore."

Mr Ridgley has no objection to the school getting a Grade II listing, having done some much-needed internal restructuring in 2001 before the listing. "These buildings will last much longer than modern ones," he says. "The walls are 18 inches thick. It's far too good a build to ever be knocked down."

But others have been less lucky. Liverpool used to boast about 100 board schools but only two dozen survive, some derelict.

The Royal Park School in Hyde Park, Leeds, is another casualty. Built in 1890, it missed being listed and closed in 2004. It has since stood empty. "There's nothing in the area to bind the community together any more," says Ted Winter, a former pupil. He and 20 others squatted in the building in November to highlight its plight and clean it up, before being removed by the police. "If not used as a school, it could be retained for the community. It's derelict and has been vandalised but it's a perfectly good building. It could be restored and brought to life."

Ty Goddard, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, recognises both sides of the argument. On the one hand, old, sustainable schools need protection, especially if they help pupils appreciate their heritage.

Teachers at Scarcroft School in York, for instance, use it as a learning tool. Pupils discover how both world wars affected the Victorian school, which was closed and used by the military to billet soldiers. Its logo includes the school's 1896 birthday and its rich history is celebrated, says Jenny Holton, a teacher.

But other historical schools will be beyond repair, often due to a lack of investment, poor maintenance or because they are too inflexible to accommodate new ideas, Mr Goddard adds. To force teachers and pupils to adapt to these sub-standard conditions would be to ignore the argument that school environments matter. "Surely the needs of our teachers and learners and value for money over the next decades should be important," he says. "This debate needs balance, sensitivity and more understanding of education and more consideration for our teachers and learners."

After years of neglect, having the money to refurbish, rebuild, restore or remodel schools can only be a good thing. Choosing the right option, however, is proving trickier.

Schools through the centuries


The earliest surviving schools were built by private benefactors and entrepreneurs. Winchester and Eton colleges, founded in 1382 and 1440 respectively, combined education with chapel duties.


The growth of public and charitable schools, some set up by benevolent industrialists. More common were "ragged schools", offering basic literacy. Churches began to build schools for middle-class children, such as Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, in 1802.


The state began to replace churches as the principle source of elementary schooling. School boards built schools.


Local authorities took over. In 1902, there were 272 secondaries in England; by 1912, 1,000.


New ideas went unrealised due to the poor state of the economy, but a shortfall of places - partly as a result of mass migration - led to a burst of activity in the late 1930s.


Education for all arrived. One in five schools in England and Wales was destroyed or damaged in the Second World War. New estates and towns - built for London's evacuees in Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire - needed new schools. Prefabricated, comprehensive schools were built.


The Building Schools for the Future programme will see every state secondary school in England - around 3,500 in total - rebuilt or refurbished, as part of a pound;20 billion programme. A capital programme for primaries is to follow.

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