Something to aspire to after 30 years

16th January 2004 at 00:00
The building of a medieval cathedral provides the backdrop of William Golding's The Spire. Progress is slow, brick on painful brick. Yet the capacity of the structure not only to provide work but also to lift people's gaze from their squalid, humdrum, everyday life to something more spiritual and other-worldly, provides the book's central metaphor.

Over the past nine months, in a small way, the progress of our new school building has mirrored such a development. We saw the environmental area swallowed up by a bulldozer and the piles driven into the earth. For many weeks, the foundations expanded outwards, as if marking the territory. Yet, one day, the walls began to grow and, as we looked, so our attention was taken upwards with the bricks. The walls took to the skies. True, it still looked like a shell and the scaffolding distorted our view. Yet unmistakably, almost dreamlike, we saw the prospect of new accommodation: new classrooms, new pinboards, cupboards, windows and doors. It was difficult to contain the anticipation of what it would be like to teach in an environment that smacked so much of newness.

Do you remember all those years when repair and maintenance meant exactly that? The fire exit step on the Year 2 hut was rotting so a new tread was cut into existing strings. That lasted a few months before the tread above went, and then the one below, and then the strings themselves. The door had also gone, so that any thief could nudge it open. Then the roof started leaking. There's nothing like a bucket collecting the drips in the middle of a classroom to provoke gloom and despondency. The coffers were empty and so the pattern followed year on year, without the children ever having something exciting to change their perception about how society valued education.

It hasn't gone smoothly, of course. No one saw fit to inform the water board that we needed connection, so the taps, although fitted, remain dry.

There's a similar problem with the gas meter. A call has gone out for electric convectors to tide us over until the services come on stream.

The doom merchants started wailing that it would never be finished, and the snagging, they say, wait until the snagging. They are missing the point.

It's what the building represents that's important. We'll be in one day, after more than 30 years of existing with "temporary classrooms". Yusuf Islam was Cat Stevens when the school last saw any investment, let alone funding which runs into millions.

One of the central characters in The Spire is the master builder. By the end of the book, you feel as if you understand his struggle. In a similar way, we've grown to respect all those who have worked on our building: the architect, for example, who put in all sorts of little touches that the children will so appreciate in the coming years - the shape of the windows, the corners and the wooden cladding; the builders who invite us to site meetings and ask us to decide on coat hooks and shelving; the safety officer, the clerk of works, the quantity surveyor. They are all such vital components in the process and have become part of our lives. We share in their highs and commiserate with the disappointments. It's also brought the school community together; we share in a common goal.

Imagine those who lived in the shadow of the great churches in the Middle Ages. That one overarching symbol growing in front of their eyes. The capacity to inspire remains just as real today, and for a few years before the building grows old and no one who was there remains and can remember what it was like when the building rose out of the ground, it will do just that. Just like the spire.

Bob Fletcher is head of Hobbayne primary school, west London

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