JCT

#50 Why buildings matter, especially school buildings

In schools on July 13, 2010 at 11:13 pm

So no more Building Schools for the Future, then. We all knew it was coming, but my first reaction last week was: ‘Phew! Thank goodness the 1950s comp my daughter starts at in September has already been rebuilt,’ closely followed by: ‘There goes that gig I had doing architecture workshops with schoolkids in Ealing getting them to design their dream school.’

But for once it isn’t all me, me, me.  A quick look through the revised, revised, (revised?) list shows that just about every school in Ealing that was scheduled for a rebuild has been scrapped. Some with the pens poised over the contract and the wrecking balls ready to swing after the end of term in a fortnight. In a borough that already has to find several thousand more  school places from somewhere. All those kids who’ve been promised something better, just dumped. And the ones I met were really great kids too. Not to mention all those building firms that thought they had work this year and who will now probably just go bust.

Yet at the same time, Michael Gove (is it just me, or has he started to get quite creepy? Maybe he was he always like that and I just thought he was nice cos he used to be on Newsnight Review?)  is going to be giving money to his chums who want to set up their own  schools because they are too afraid to join the actual state system, but at the same time have to be publicly seen to shun independent school privileges. At least I assume this is how it will work as these new privately-owned, state-funded schools are going to need some sort of building to hold their Latin classes in.

On last week’s Question Time, a very well spoken lady asked:  ‘Why do children need millions of pounds spent on fancy schools anyway? Can’t the same results be achieved just by having good teachers?’

Well no actually. I’m a passionate believer in the power of architecture, and the fundamental impact of space/environment/call it what you will on someone’s soul. It’s why when you go into a cathedral you feel spiritually uplifted, even if you aren’t religious. It’s why people in badly designed offices suffer from sick building syndrome.  It’s why people spend a fortune on a Farrow & Ball off-white paint to achieve a soothing quality of light rather than the harshness of an industrial white.

I’ve read about schools in San Diego that are predominantly internet based, or in India where lessons are received by children in remote villages through machines a bit like ATMs, and about the open air schools movement of the early 19th century which believed fresh air would stimulate the  enquiring mind so held all lessons outdoors. In Britain. So you could argue that school buildings will eventually become obsolete.

True, many of the schools that have been rebuilt are dreary, off-the-peg, PFI numbers that are even more depressing than the badly insulated, past their sell by date buildings they have replaced (at least the originals had character). But from talking to the children in the Ealing workshops about their concerns, it’s clear that there are other issues that can be designed into buildings, such as something so basic as having toilets designed to prevent bullying (much school bullying happens when pupils are trapped are trapped by their aggressors in the toilets). And I bet Michael Gove is more productive in an office where he has the facilities he needs to do his job and isn’t either freezing or blinded by solar glare, and where he doesn’t worry about being beaten up by Osborne and Cameron in the toilets. And anyway, what better way to combat problems of truancy and recalcitrance than making a school somewhere pupils actually want to be.

It just so happens that my daughter’s new school is an exemplar of a BSF success story. Even the Telegraph thinks so, look! Seven years ago it was text book hell-hole: police called in every day, more kids out of school than in it, teachers scrounging fags off kids… A LOT of investment, incredibly dedicated teachers, and really innovative architects dRMM have given the school an original, inspiring environment that is a joy to be in and which the children feel proud of and enthused by. As a result, the school has just received Outstanding from Ofstead. Hell, they even teach Latin.

And the ultimate benchmark of success – the East Dulwich bourgeoisie are now falling over themselves to get a place. (fyi places allocated on a lottery you can’t, as with some schools,  just buy an expensive house in the same road, or start pretending to be religious.)

Now I can see Gove’s concern. If all state schools were to become this successful, it would spell disaster for the economy. The beauty of independent schools, and the reason they should never be scrapped,  is that you have a percentage of the population paying for state schools but then not actually using them. If all those people were to realise that there are in fact a lot of really great state schools full of really great teachers and pretty impressive facilities, there’d never be enough places for them and we’d need to, er, build more schools. Which apparently we  can’t afford.

To take a virtual tour of Kingsdale Foundation school, click here (Check out the Pod!)

For inspiring new school buildings from all round the world, click here (Check out ørestad college, Copenhagen)

To hear what those kids in Ealing want from their schools, click here

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