Upstairs, downstairs

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Teachers are used to taking their work home. But how would you feel if home was the flat above your classroom? David Newnham visits an innovative building project that literally brings a community closer together

For Ganxhe Mikeli, getting her five-year-old Xhulio to his north London school in the morning could hardly be easier. Not for her the rigours of the school run or the frustrations of public transport. For St Jude and St Paul's CE primary is just downstairs.

The smart first-floor flat which Ms Mikeli rents from the Islington and Shoreditch housing association is one of 24 affordable new homes in a four-storey block whose entire ground floor is occupied by Xhulio's school.

Not that you would know, looking out from Ms Mikeli's south-facing lounge window, that there were a couple of hundred young children working and playing downstairs. For this innovative project - the architects believe it is the first example in the UK of a school with housing above - was designed from the outset with the sensitivities of all its occupants in mind.

School and flats have separate exits and entrances, and every detail, from the level of the kitchen window sills to the height of the stylish iroko balconies, has been carefully thought out. The result is that, whereas many inner-city schools are overlooked by high-rise flats, St Jude and St Paul's is unusually secluded, despite sharing the same triangle of earth with two dozen homes.

When headteacher Marjory Wood took up her post eight years ago, St Jude and St Paul's was split between two sites, with an infants' school on one side of a busy road, and a run-down junior school on the other. The junior school itself was tightly sandwiched between a historic cemetery and a derelict, rat-infested factory, which in turn was perched on the very edge of a railway cutting. "In our last Ofsted report, the accommodation came out as poor, and it couldn't have got any worse," says Mrs Wood. "I was running backwards and forwards 14 times a day, the admin office was in a cottage, and we had to use mobiles because there was no phone connection down there."

Enter Pollard Thomas Edwards architects (PTEa), whose associated development company was in the process of buying the disused factory with a view to building family houses on the site when it became aware of the school's predicament. "We always talk to neighbours, just to say what we're up to," explains PTEa's director, Andrew Beharrell. "We learned of their aspiration for a new school, and immediately saw the scope to combine the sites and provide a bigger and better school."

There then ensued two years of negotiations between, among others, the London Diocesan Board for Schools, the Department for Education and Skills, the Islington and Shoreditch housing association and various departments of the local authority. "One reason the project came about," says Mr Beharrell, "was that Islington council had more than one objective. The housing department wanted affordable housing and the education department saw an opportunity for a new school.

"The problem was how to fund it. Eventually, they were able to obtain a DfES grant, and I think the department was more willing to give the money because it knew there was a private sector 'subsidy' coming with the flats on top."

It is an idea that could catch on in the south-east, where land is expensive and there is government pressure to build more homes. Given that schools generally use the land they occupy for a limited amount of time, it obviously makes sense to build housing above. And where that housing can provide the school with capital or a regular income, arguably everyone benefits. In Islington, the flats were used to generate capital that partially offset the cost of the new buildings, says Mr Beharrell. "But if you had a surplus, you could equally imagine a scenario where a school retained some flats, either for its own housing purposes or for income. And it makes more sense than selling off bits of land and trying to fit the school on to what's left."

PTEa is now working on a number of similar projects for the London Diocesan Board, of which the slightly larger St Thomas's primary school in north Kensington is at the most advanced stage. Here, if the scheme gets planning approval, the considerable costs of building a spacious and striking new school will be funded almost entirely by the provision of around 55 flats on four floors above. And, once again, it seems to be the only way that the existing run-down premises are going to be replaced in the foreseeable future.

But while St Jude and St Paul's is tucked away and almost invisible from the surrounding streets, the plans for St Thomas's depict a much more extrovert structure. An eye-catching central studio hall rises to full-height between two flanking residential blocks, its first-floor connected to the playground by an extravagant spiral ramp which shelters an outdoor theatre. The intention is that this large performance space will be available to both the school and, out of school hours, to the people who live in the flats above.

The two projects won PTEa the Innovation of the Year award at last November's Regeneration Awards for architecture. PTEa was also named Regeneration Architect of the Year.

So does this physical coming together of living and working spaces herald a breaking down of the traditional barriers between school and home? Might there come a time when little Xhulio is not the only child who sleeps over his classroom - a time, even, when the staff themselves live upstairs? While two of the St Jude's flats have indeed been let to teachers, both work at other local schools. And Colin Archer, of the Islington and Shoreditch housing association, reckons that's about as far as this particular trend is likely to go. "My wife is a teacher," he says, "and I think the thing she would like least of all is to live over the shop. It's hard enough when she's recognised in Sainsbury's."

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