Rising from the ashes, a Borders primary spreads its wings

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Three years after it was demolished by a fire, Denholm Primary will officially open on Monday. It is the first of its kind in the area built to strict `School of the Future' standards

It's lunchtime at Denholm Primary and pupils are dotted around on the steps of the amphitheatre, playing and chattering as sunlight illuminates the steps. Not every school has an amphitheatre. But this is no ordinary school.

The village primary between Hawick and Jedburgh is the first of a generation of Borders schools built to its strict new "School of the Future" standard - a model developed by a panel of headteachers together with council architects. It is funded by the council to the tune of Pounds 3.12 million, with grants from the Scottish Government (Pounds 30,000) and Low Carbon Buildings Programme (Pounds 24,000) for renewables initiatives.

Of course, the building has all the green credentials one could imagine - ground source underfloor heating, rainwater used for the toilets and the sprinkler system, photo-voltaic panels to provide electricity, high energy-efficiency levels and even a living green cedar roof. But it is not just its environmental features that make it a school of the future. Everything - cabling and power points, classroom size and adaptability to facilitate different styles of learning, flexibility of spaces to allow for multiple uses, community accessibility - has been considered for its appropriateness for the future.

The old school burned down three years ago, on April 20, 2006, because of a faulty heater in the playgroup room. "It was a beautiful day - the second day of the summer term when everybody's a bit more upbeat," recalls the acting headteacher, Avril Gibson, then the principal teacher. "The playgroup room was up in smoke when I arrived, and we stood and watched as the windows exploded. You could see flames bursting out of the classrooms."

The fire service saved three rooms, but the whole building was demolished because of asbestos contamination."You collect loads of stuff over the years you teach," says Mrs Gibson. "I don't know what was worse: watching your stuff burn, or knowing it was in there but you couldn't get it."

She says staff and pupils have been on quite a journey in the last three years. The school was closed for a few days after the fire, while teachers were offered support and facilities at a council community centre in Galashiels. A week and a day after the fire, they relocated to St Margaret's Primary in Hawick. They shared the building until moving three of their four classes into two cramped Portakabins in the playground at the end of November 2006, where they froze in the winter and baked in the summer.

"There was little natural light and one window looked out onto a concrete wall," says Mrs Gibson. "It really affected the kids' concentration; you would notice their energy dipping in the afternoon. It was an absolutely horrendous time."

Staff and parents were consulted about what they would like from the new building, which will be opened officially on Monday. Teachers wanted larger classrooms with flexibility of layout to encourage more interactive activities and structured play. Parents were keen to preserve the old building's sense of progressing from the infant end up the corridor to the upper end.

Classrooms are spacious and bright, with the external and inside walls made up almost entirely of glass panes. With a roll of 86, there are four composite classes - P1-2, P3-4, P4-5 and P6-7 - and an extra classroom to allow for future growth.

They are arranged in an arc - the architect, Ray Cherry, conceived of it as a "learning curve" - around the central library, with infant access for P1-4 at one end and access for P5-7s at the other end. The library is a circle, with windows all round. Outside the library, the amphitheatre steps, used for drama and health lessons, lead down to the dining area, vast gym hall and community end of the building, for the school is on a slope.

The amphitheatre was Mr Cherry's idea for linking the two levels so the building flows from the single-storey teaching end to the two-storey community end, which accommodates the gym hall, playgroup and staffroom. Folding walls between the gym and dining room, and between the medical room and support-for-learning room, mean two smaller areas can be opened up to create a single larger space.

The school has also been designed to accommodate greater community use, with the gym hall used as a public facility.

There is ample cabling and provision of power points for the growth of technical equipment, ICT and Glow (the Scottish schools intranet). Good design, says Mr Cherry, who is assistant architectural manager at Scottish Borders Council, can also be capable of future adaptation or extension. IT and power distribution routes need to be planned for ease of change without disrupting the whole fabric. Flexibility should allow for variations in use, layout, number of occupants and teaching patterns and methods.

"In doing this," he says, "the school is able to provide a range of spaces that will suit different styles of learning now and in the future."

Mrs Gibson and her staff moved into the new school after the October holiday. P3-4 teacher Diane King says it is an "absolute pleasure" to come to work in the morning. "The building works really well - it's curved and flowing." She was fond of the old building, but is delighted with her new classroom. "It's the largest I've ever taught in. We've got room to spread out."

The room has a lot of storage space, two sinks - one for the children and one for Mrs King, at the right height for an adult - and space for the children to play on the floor. A magnetic board, whiteboard and interactive board are arranged along one wall. Some children are sitting at desks, doing topic work, while others are on free choice. There is a train track and farm, and some children are dressing up.

"They're happier," says Mrs King. "You can feel it."

The library is just across the corridor from her classroom, with windows round its edge. She is able to send groups of children in on their own as she can watch them. "It gives them a bit of independence."

The bell sounds like a fire alarm. "That's the only thing I don't like," says Mrs King.

Mrs Gibson says everyone has noticed the difference since moving into the new building. "There's a calmness," she says. "There's a lovely relaxed atmosphere and that has to be the environment. The children are keen to look after the school."

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