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England’s Schools: History, Architecture and Adaptation

England’s Schools, a new book by English Heritage’s architectural investigator Elain Harwood, surveys a century of national school-building

England’s Schools: History, Architecture and Adaptation by Elain Harwood, English Heritage, January 2010, £9.99, www.english-heritage.org.uk

‘Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future!’ says Sherlock Holmes to Dr Watson in The Naval Treaty. He is referring to the board schools, ‘those big, isolated clumps of buildings [that] rise up above the slates’ of the late 19th century’s rapid urbanisation.

The short story was written at the time of a large-scale school-building programme, similar in ambition to the Building Schools for the Future programme that began in 2004. Many of the 200 rebuilt or refurbished secondary schools that open each year replace the type of schools described by Holmes.

School buildings of the past still have a lot to teach us; more than 5,000 of them have been listed for their special architectural or historical interest. The properties in the private and state sector face very different prospects. The private sector reveres and extends its properties; in the state sector the emphasis is on new architecture.

The scale of rebuilding means that many architects involved in school design rarely have the years of experience working with educationalists that made schools in Hampshire from the 1970s, for example, so special. Brand new schools can look great, but bright shiny finishes pose problems of noise and maintenance, while I personally wonder if they are truly child-centred – so many look like cut-down offices or defy adornment with splodge paintings and papier mâché heads. Looking at 2007’s New North Community School in Islington, London, from the street today, I could see nothing made by a child. Many older designs can be successfully adapted, such as Avanti Architects’ current refurbishment of Ernö Goldfinger’s Haggerston School (1964-65).

More than just the romantic visual markers that Sherlock Holmes referred to, school design also tells the story of how attitudes to state education have manifested themselves in the built environment. Ideas disappear and resurface; the central learning centres of Leicestershire’s 1970s schools nod to the 1880s board schools, whose classrooms were set around a central hall. And, for over a century, governmental structures, social concerns and technical developments have been articulated in the fabric of our children’s schools. Here are some of the major moments.

Board schools
In the 19th century, Gothic pinnacles gave way slowly to the ecumenical red gables of the board schools. The 1870 Education Act was promoted by WE Forster, MP for Bradford, and many of the best board schools that followed were built in his adopted city. The designs resembled Gothic churches with their imposing bell towers and rose windows. Arguably the best is Lilycroft Road Board School (1873) by Hope and Jardine, where elaboration extended to a hammerbeam roof for the boys’ main schoolroom.

Bradford Board was the first to open a ‘higher’ school (in 1875) for older children looking to go into teaching or clerical work, and to build baths for both washing and swimming in 1897. It was the first to provide school medicals, in 1899. Bradford also pioneered school dinners, begun in 1887, and inspired national provision from 1906. It was also the first board after London to build an open-air school for delicate children, in 1908.

Building for health
Children’s health became an important factor in school design in the 20th century. School boards were abolished in 1902 and building passed to the local county council or county borough. The leading architect of the era was perhaps George Widdows, who became architect to the Derbyshire Education Committee in 1904.

That year, medical officers began to encourage cross-ventilation to blow away germs and large windows to aid children’s eyesight. Widdows also introduced open-corridors or verandas for drill practice.

The fresh-air movement culminated in open-air schools for anaemic and tubercular children, where the only classroom was a hut for rainy weather. The first was opened by London County Council in 1906, following experiments made in Germany in 1904 – even the hut was imported. Breakfast, lunch, tea and an afternoon nap formed part of the regime, and two teachers were experienced in leading nature studies.

The experiment was considered so successful that permanent schools were established in 13 cities by 1914. More followed in the 1920s. Aspen School in Brixton, which opened in 1925, continued the preference for huts. Gateshead preferred smart brickwork for its open-air school in 1937, but the classroom windows could be folded right back and many lessons were taken out of doors.

Prefabrication and beyond
The importance given to fresh air and eyesight in post-war Britain is evident in the huge numbers of schools built after 1945 with glazed curtain walls. Light, prefabricated schools were developed in Hertfordshire that considered every aspect of design from a child’s viewpoint, providing messy paint areas, diminutive sinks and stimulating murals.

The CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) system of combining resources to build prefabricated schools, developed by Nottinghamshire, had a similar quirkiness in its earliest, tile-hung versions, such as Bancroft Lane from 1956. Subsequent system-built schools became bland, and in the late 1970s Hampshire led a revival of one-off designs, usually with deep atria under barn-like roofs.

A different movement governed secondary schools, needed in increasing numbers as the leaving age advanced and more children stayed beyond it. Butler’s Education Act in 1944 advocated grammar, technical and ‘modern’ schools. The alternative was the comprehensive school – ambitiously large and with year rooms or house rooms to provide smaller spaces for social activities. In Leicestershire, village colleges combined school and community facilities around a library, with large open-plan craft areas and a public sculpture programme. Bosworth, Countesthorpe and Wreake Valley Colleges – one predominantly glass, one brick and one concrete, built between 1968 and 1971 – show how creative school planning can be.

Elain Harwood is a historian and senior architectural investigator with English Heritage’s conservation and protection department, and was previously responsible for its listing programme

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