What about the slum schools?

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Hearing becomes more acute. Muscles tense up. Heart and respiratory rates increase. Blood starts to gather in torso and head. Hands and feet grow cold and sweaty. The neurotransmitters are at work, preparing to deal with stress to come. And that is just driving through the gates of the school. The reason for stress is not because HMI is coming to call, or because there has been another break-in, or even because it's Monday again. No, the reason for stress is literally just driving through the gates of the school.

As I enter my school, I feel like Jason dodging Scylla and Charybdis. On my right is the boarded-up janitor's house. It looks like the Death Star shortly after Luke Skywalker hit the bull's-eye, for just about everything except a cruise missile has had a go at it. Notwithstanding its three-metre high palisade fencing, a hedge that has run riot and boarded windows crudely daubed with Danger, Keep Out signs, it has been reinstated twice and cleaned out three times. Anything that was not nailed down or screwed down has long gone, and some things that were screwed and nailed down have been removed, together with the flooring they were on.

The building has been scheduled for demolition for three years now, but no one has the money to do it. On my left are the bins, the coal bunkers capable of holding 20 tons and a burnt-out cupboard. Unlike St Paul's or the Vatican, no one remembers the name of the architect, if in fact it was architect-designed. Over the years, the plans have disappeared and all that are left of them are some very tatty fold-ups that give the impression they are moonlighting as directions to Treasure Island.

In these days when accountability is on everyone's lips, there surely must be someone prepared to accept responsibility for trying to win the prize for the least prepossessing entrance to an educational establishment in the United Kingdom. And not just this, but to impose a building on children and teachers that shows no sign that any thought of security, or even geography, went into it.

My building was not translated miraculously to Easterhouse from Tunisia. It was intentionally constructed with a flat roof. No one has ever explained why, no one has ever sunbathed on the main building roof and no one has ever promenaded on it in the cool of any evening, though long summer evenings see cycle races on the more accessible lower parts, their paths avoiding the resident Buckie boozers.

My flat roof has a limited number of functions. Pigeons, starlings and (I think) wagtails nest in and on the water housing it contains, but basically it exists to be repaired because it leaks like a sieve. And that's on a dry day. Contractors grow fat and thrive on it, apprentices serve out their time on it, layers of felting stratify, increase and multiply on it, and still water penetrates.

The real roof spin-off is the Great Game of contractor-coping that comes with its own set of rules. Skips have to be fenced off, children kept at bay, materials made safe and plant protected, a precaution that workmen on my building recently neglected to take with a hydraulic hoist. Have you ever seen a burnt-out hoist? You couldn't believe how it fulfils Ogilvie's First Law - anything that can be vandalised eventually will be.

Whatever is done to the building is merely cosmetic and it is beginning to show, and that is the serious point. Now that local housing has been refurbished to commendably high standards, the school that serves the community has marked time on the spot. It is now the poor relation, and it looks tattered and down at heel.

"Education, education, education" is the war cry that will take us into the next millennium. Good soundbite, Tony, but if education involves a place of learning, then that place must be inviting and attractive. We can't do much about the architecture, but we can do something about the conditions. Schools that seem to be sinking physically breed sinking thinking and attitudes, and poor conditions encourage low aspirations. We have had more than enough of that on the margins.

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