Class of their own

The government’s new edict for cut-price school buildings – no curves, smaller circulation and communal spaces et al– made me appreciate the last hurrahs of the previous government’s BSF school building programme as I made the long pilgrimage around prospective secondary schools for my daughter. Touring schools in my part of south-east London, I was amazed to find that without exception, they were all in the process of being rebuilt, or had recently been so.

The pride that students had in their new buildings was palpable, and it’s not hard to understand why. Impressive atriums (now a no-no) corridors that were wide enough for other activities, great specialist facilities, pleasantly landscaped outdoor areas, cheerful school buildings. It’s not just aesthetic indulgence. Design has a key role to play in minimising bullying opportunities and enhancing children’s school experience and in doing so, their achievements. Of course the buildings themselves are only part of the story when it comes to delivering a good education. But it’s a very important part, especially so at schools that are being reinvented after years of under performing. Here, the new facilities really can be a catalyst for changing the attitudes not only of staff and students who feel they are worth investing in, but of parents of prospective pupils who may have cold feet about comprehensives and the state sector and who want to see physical proof of a school’s transformation.

Touring the schools brought home the difficulties that a standardised design approach, now being encouraged, would face. One school I visited was being squeezed into a modest site abutting a railway track, another on a more generous but significantly sloping site. For every school with the design challenges of fronting a busy road, there was another in a more suburban setting surrounded by low-scale homes. All required a very different design response, as demonstrated by Architects Co-Partnership’s work for Lewisham BSF, which has included both the colourful and compact Trinity and the campus-style Sedgehill with (whisper it) curves. Not far away in the borough of Greenwich, Hawkins Brown’s ongoing phased redevelopment of Eltham Hill should increase the school’s ability to attract staff and students alike.

The depressing Coalition changes to the school rebuilding programme are not just an issue for those with children of school age. These buildings are a key part of the public environment.  By returning to a lowest common denominator, cheap but not so cheerful approach, we will all be the poorer.