'Our school is pretty cool'

18th June 2004 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive's drive to build and refurbish 300 schools within five years is transforming the architectural landscape. Despite political rows over funding and criticisms of poor consultation, many are delighted with the results. Raymond Ross reports.

The news that the City of Edinburgh Council was going to demolish the cramped, old Victorian buildings which housed St Thomas of Aquin's RC High in Chalmers Street - a building which had narrowly survived a Zeppelin raid in 1916 - and start afresh on the same site was received by the school in 1999 on the feast day of St Thomas Aquinas, January 28.

"We were overjoyed," says depute headteacher Rab Burnett.

"The old building had already been condemned by an HMI report in 1987. Then one of our janitors managed to succeed where the Zeppelin bombs had failed.

He was coming down a flight of stairs one day when his foot went right through the stair.

"Everyone, but everyone, realised then that something had to be done."

The new building, the last to be directly funded by the council, cost pound;14 million and was opened in August 2002. It is widely seen as the jewel in the city's crown.

Despite recent criticisms of new-build schools in Scotland, particularly those funded through public private partnerships, which have been accused of destroying our Victorian heritage and failing the green test, the St Thomas's building is one that receives almost universal praise.

The front and sides are finished in stone, complete with exterior lighting to show the building off to its best at night.

The entrance foyer feels more like that of a classy hotel or the plush headquarters of a large corporate company than that of a school. It lacks entirely any institutional feel.

The building is light and airy with all the walls finished in white. It makes good use of internal and external windows, with a lot of highly-polished and well-finished wood throughout. And the stairs, complete with gleaming stainless steel handrails, speak of solidity.

The foyer opens out to a mezzanine floor overlooking a stylish, spacious assembly and dining area. Catering is cashless, each pupil having their own cash card, and registration is computerised.

Every teacher has their own laptop computer and every classroom is equipped with interactive whiteboards, ceiling-mounted projectors and speakers.

The music department has a state-of-the-art recording studio with sound-proofed rooms (though there is a little leakage).

The science labs are well equipped with a pod-style design.

The spacious library has a glass wall linking it to the flexible learning base (financed by ScottishPower Learning) where pupils can access distance learning courses.

The drama department has a studio theatre with a full lighting rig, while the physical education department boasts a large games hall with sound-absorbing wall-bricks and a large studio with a sprung wooden floor and full-length dance mirrors.

The art department at the top of the building has an external balcony area, though a minor design fault has included smoked glass on some of the windows.

Whatever the outcry about destroying Victorian building heritage, no one at St Thomas's wants to turn back the clock.

"The old building was a warren and sometimes you had to go through a classroom to get from A to B," says Kevin McCormick, principal of guidance.

"I taught for nine years in Victorian buildings in inner London which all lacked maintenance. The old building here was no better.

"I'm reminded of the Victorian Celtic supporter who said that moving to the new Parkhead in 1892 was 'like leaving the graveyard to enter Paradise'. I know exactly how that man felt."

Kevin Pia, principal of history and modern studies and author of a history of the school, says: "You could put up with the terrible facilities because the kids were so nice to teach. We're talking about holes in doors and walls throughout the old building.

"I'd be hard pushed to move from a school like this, even for an extra pound;6,000 a year."

The major flaw of the new building is that it overheats regularly and the ventilation needs improving. But most agree that's a small price to pay for the excellence of the facilities.

Being a city-centre site, there is no room for a large playgound, but The Meadows, one of the largest inner-city green spaces in Europe, is a minute's walk away.

The pupils use the Commonwealth swimming pool just over a mile away and athletics coaching is easily catered for at Meadowbank Stadium.

Given the functional and aesthetic qualities of the building, and the praise heaped upon it by visitors, headteacher Andy McSorley is often confronted by jealousy.

"Yes, I'm regularly mugged at headteachers' meetings. 'How did you get that?' 'How did you manage this?' I just say: 'Och, don't worry. We'll be getting the swimming pool in phase two.' " The pupils and parents are proud of the school too, says Mr McCormick. "At parents' nights it's not uncommon for them to say how much their children are enjoying the new facilities and how proud they are, often not just as parents but as former pupils."

The quality of the school can be put down to not only the budget the city was willing to commit but also close consultation between the city, the school, the architects and the builders and, within the school, between the senior management, departments and pupils.

"Staff were heavily involved in the design about key requirements and the architects did listen," says Mr Burnett.

"I'd recommend any school undergoing this process to get the staff involved early, and the students as well. It helps give a sense of ownership.

The pupils' list of 10 top requirements were met except for having a swimming pool and for Burger King to run the canteen. That was never going to happen.

"We went through the classroom designs quite rigorously to interpret if and how the building would work and we had an interior design committee with representatives from each faculty. We spent a lot of time consulting with staff," says Mr Burnett.

He believes St Thomas's was lucky because the school could manage its own decisions about function and fabric. But perhaps St Thomas's had another advantage in Mr Burnett himself.

"I have a background in civil engineering and while the school was decamped during the building, I was back on site through the latter stages to liaise with our contractors, HBG, who were superb. We could discuss in detail things like where power points would go and the way a door would open.

"Your relationship with your contractors is of the utmost importance," he says.

While Mr Burnett is full of praise for the city's architects and HBG, he says salesmen were "the bane of my life". "You have to be polite, which means you can never get rid of them, and objectivity is not their strong point.

"My advice is to go to schools where their equipment is in use and find out what those schools think of it, a bit like sharing best practice," he says.


Meldrum Academy


Headteacher Andrew Sutherland says:

"We were a single secondary new build under the Private Finance Initiative, as was, opening in August 2002. It's good quality and the general consensus among our many visitors is that we have one of the better new builds in Scotland.

"There's a lot of glass and use of open spaces to make the building light and airy. Our information and communications technology areas are well-designed with 26 to 30 screens in the rooms.

"The social areas are excellent, including a large cafe with seven serveries, but this has proved so popular with pupils that we are having to add a new cafe next year.

"Sports facilities are also good including a synthetic grass pitch which, being a community school, is used day and night. Similarly, our library is open to the community all day as well.

"We worked closely with our project team, seeing the plans and being able to change classroom layouts.

"In PPPPFI, your partnership agreement is very important because both parties must understand that the contract may need renegotiating to deal with new demands and changes. So you must have a good relationship and understanding.

"I defy anyone to design a building which will be adequate 25 years from now because education is changing so rapidly. For example, we've added a severe and complex needs base already and are about to add an autism base.

"A word of advice: never underestimate the amount of storage space you'll need, and meeting areas.

"Overall, our staff and pupils are very pleased with the efficient design spec of the school, which looks good inside and out and which encapsulates our community ethos."


East Kilbride

Depute headteacher Patricia Stewart says:

"We've been in since January but only opened officially last Friday. It's absolutely wonderful.

"We have a state-of-the-art computer suite with an interactive whiteboard, plus two computers in every classroom, giving us 50 screens in total. We also have a purpose built library.

"The gym hall and stage area are separate from the dining hall, which means they can be in constant use. The dining area is cafe style with seats attached to tables, easily put away to make extra space when needed.

"From the outside. I'd say it was an interesting, modern building, bright blue and built in sections.

"Inside, the pupils say it's like a hotel. It's bright but with gentle colours, wide corridors and good cloakroom space. There's not a lot of glass, the windows are reasonably small, but it's generally well heated.

"There's potential to upgrade ICT easily because of the design and there's plenty of green space around for environmental projects.

"I've yet to hear a negative comment from parents."

Balfron High


Depute headteacher Sandy Kelso says:

"We were a PFI, as was, opening in August 2001. Straight off I'd say the staff were and are delighted with the new school, its large rooms, wide corridors and good social spaces for the pupils. Most Scottish classrooms are far too small.

"Every teacher can control the temperature in their room and all are equipped with interactive whiteboards. Each classroom has 10 computer points and outside each class there is an open space with 20 more computer points. One day we'll get enough computers for them all!

"It's a light, spacious building with a lovely glass-roofed atrium which houses the cafe-style canteen.

"We have a slated roof and imitation red sandstone walls. I don't know that the building will be seen as part of a future architectural heritage but it doesn't have that off-the-back-of-a-lorry prefabricated look.

"Our previous building was a third Victorian, a third 1960s and a third prefab. Moving here was like going from night to day.

"There is a grandness about the building and the carpeted floors reduce noise and give a calm atmosphere.

"The pupils' ideas contributed to the landscaping of the school and they spent pound;5,000 on plants for inside.

"Staff and pupils were closely consulted - very important - and I worked with the architects and contractors full-time for two years. It is absolutely crucial that you have a liaison person who can leave the contractors with no illusions as to what the staff want.

"I'd sum up Balfron High by saying the architect's over-riding thought was that when the pupils first entered he wanted them to ask 'Have they built this for me?' "

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