High-class but poor quality

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Jonathan Milne finds one of Britain's best schools grappling with one of the country's worst new buildings

Welcome to Redbridge community school - one reason that the Government's architecture adviser decided half of new schools are badly designed and poorly built.

Redbridge, in Southampton, gives its 900 students one of the best educations in the country, being rated in the top 2 per cent of schools nationwide. Ofsted last year praised its staff and its head-teacher, Richard Schofield.

But its new buildings are something else entirely.

Staff and students moved from a dilapidated 40-year-old school into their new premises four years ago, but immediately hit problems with congestion, noise, peeling flooring, and lack of light and ventilation.

"I've never seen enthusiastic teachers deflated so quickly," said Mr Schofield. They were saying 'We wish we were back in our old school'."

The report, published last week by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, (Cabe) said new school buildings were failing to provide the facilities and learning environments needed to fulfil the Prime Minister's pound;2.2bn-a-year promise to transform the future of education.

Redbridge was rated among the worst in Cabe's audit of 52 of the 124 new schools built in the past five years. While the commission would not identify the worst school, Mr Schofield confirmed that Redbridge had been rated as one of the poorest.

"It has an impact on staff morale, against the backdrop of a school that's incredibly successful against the odds. We work very hard to compensate for some of the problems that the building throws up," he said.

The problems include:

* small classrooms;

* long, narrow corridors that can become congested with up to 400 students at a time, leading to pushing, shoving and low-level disturbances;

* totally inadequate sound insulation, costing pound;250,000 to remedy;

* no ventilation in corridors;

* classrooms with lower windows that open only eight inches, and upper windows whose latches are too high to reach, contributing to temperatures of up to 30C and children feeling faint and requiring first aid;

* no natural light for stretches of up to 60 metres in corridors.

Reebridge was commissioned and is run in a PFI contract with private facilities manager Interserve, in consultation with staff.

"We have a background in education, not in architecture and design and facilities management," said Mr Schofield. "The reality is that each time a problem has been identified we seem to meet a stone wall. We're stuck with it, unless we want to invest our own money in it.

"Let us be under no illusions, a PFI is a partnership between a public provider of education and a private funder of buildings and services. The two are not compatible. One is trying to satisfy its shareholders; the other to meet the needs of the students without a profit motive.

"I feel particular disappointment that such hard-working staff have to put up with such awful conditions. But good schools do not rely upon buildings."

An Interserve spokeswoman said Redbridge was an early PFI scheme, and the design complied with standards existing in 2002. She said Interserve had resolved, at its own expense, the acoustics problems, and was maintaining the vinyl flooring which has bubbled and peeled.

Mr Schofield has the sympathy of Yasmin Maskatiya, head of Thomas Bennett community college in Crawley, Sussex, whose building did well in the audit.

"I knew what I wanted and I had the capacity to be able to match my vision to the resources," she said, adding that her school had been able to pay for more expensive architects who shared the same vision.

Jayne Bird, a partner at Nicholas Hare LLP architects, attributed their success with Thomas Bennett community college to Ms Maskatiya's strong vision for her school, and good communication. Ms Maskatiya had asked for a central atrium, effectively an internal street, where the students could gather, before dispersing to their classes.

"It's got a very strong social heart. It gives a real sense of community and coming together," Ms Bird said.

* newsdesk@tes.co.uk

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