From Victorian stone to noisy prefab

16th August 1996 at 01:00
I do not remember much about my first school, having spent only a year there before being whisked by my parents from the care of Edinburgh Corporation at Corstorphine primary to that of the Merchant Company at the then Daniel Stewart's College. But twice this year I have been reminded of where I owe my first allegiance. Corstorphine is 350 years old and The TES Scotland carried a photograph in June of the celebrations.

The school also features in a little booklet about Edinburgh school buildings by Walter Stephen, a former senior adviser with Lothian Region. There are photographs of all the buildings on the present site. The first dates from 1824 and was followed by a much larger and typically forbidding late Victorian erection. Between the wars harling-covered brick replaced stone, and there is a classroom monument to that period, as there is to post-1945 expansion in the form of a prefabricated hut.

None of this history would have meant anything to a five-year-old. To me and my friends the buildings were all of a kind and daunting, although no real preparation for my later awesome surroundings in the high Victorian extravaganza that nowadays is Stewart's-Melville on Queensferry Road.

Subsequently I have paid little attention to educational architecture, in contrast to the previous editor of The Times Educational Supplement who wrote a book about postwar buildings. But like puzzled visitors to modern art shows, I know what I like, and in my naivety I much prefer adapted traditional styles.

Last session I visited two primaries. The first was a Victorian building where classrooms had been built off a wide central corridor. The current staff had turned the corridor into a central communal area where children could work and use resources. Each teacher still had her own classroom where she did not have to think about the effect of noise levels on fellow teachers. Yet there was also a place for free movement and shared activities.

The other primary was spanking new, a last legacy of Strathclyde Region. Cabled to the teeth, it is probably on-line to Nasa missions. But the teaching area is an open rectangle where teachers have had to build inadequate forms of separation from each other. Controlling noise - it was a Friday afternoon - was a major preoccupation.

Many centuries ago, architects invented the internal wall, but their device has been set aside. True, there are so few new schools built nowadays that old skills may have been lost. It is a far cry from the period of which Dr Stephen writes. He begins with the consequences of the 1872 Act that introduced compulsory education and ends a century later with the last years of the baby boom. I like the story, to which he alludes in passing, of the formal opening of four Edinburgh schools on one day in the 1890s. The chairman of the board which governed city education must have hurried from one school to the next by carriage, whipping up his horses on the way.

Dr Stephen's book will appeal mainly to people who know their Edinburgh geography, but his conclusions are general. There are still complaints from teachers about lack of consultation, but "on the other side architects feel uneasy that when teachers are consulted, they often seem to be unaware of any other kind of building than the one they are accustomed to".

Fabric and Function: a century of school building in Edinburgh is available from Hills of Home, 88 Pentland Terrace, Edinburgh EH10 6HF (Pounds 5.95 plus Pounds 1.50 post and packing).

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