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Extracurricular: Pollard Thomas Edwards' Tidemill Academy

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[School design] Deptford’s Tidemill Academy is cleverly hidden from the outside world but remains part of the community, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Robert Greshoff

The typical Victorian board school was intended to cut an imposing figure, looming over its wards before incarcerating them behind its load-bearing brick walls and high sills. Like their successors, these schools represented education programmes and were focal points for the communities which funded them.

Surrounded by playgrounds and fields, they also stood alone as institutions. Like the children themselves, they belonged in a category. This paradigm might have worked when Tidemill Primary School in Deptford relocated to a new home designed by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects on the site of a nearby south-east London car park in January. But the game would scarcely have been worth the candle.

Tidemill, a two-form entry school, is in one of Lewisham’s most deprived wards, with 42 per cent overcrowded households; and 28 per cent of its pupils are from a neighbouring ward, which is one of the most deprived in Britain. ‘Drug abuse and gang culture has a direct impact on many of Tidemill’s pupils,’ says the school’s business manager, Rachel Delacy-Taylor. ‘And, at 31 per cent, the portion with special educational needs is well above the average.’

Conventional capital grant and local authority funding for a new building would have been thinly spread and unlikely to provide the enhanced facilities Tidemill needed.

The call for a more imaginative approach was answered when Lewisham Council initiated a major regeneration masterplan comprising affordable housing, a leisure centre extension, improvements to the railway station, public realm and parking and a new mixed development designed by PTE, which co-located Tidemill with a new district library, community centre and 38 affordable duplex and triplex flats for London & Quadrant Group, built over artists’ studios and a gallery. The Department for Communities and Local Government also provided a £5.5 million co-location grant.

This part of central Deptford is still as rough as south-east London gets, not in a spit-and-sawdust way, but as a place where people shop in the local market rather than Waitrose and are ripped off by cash-till-payday merchants. It’s not the City of the Dead or Tondo but it’s neither genteel nor picturesque. Nevertheless, the effects of the masterplan are filtering through. Dawson Horrell’s lean, white CHSs, stairs and canopy greet you at the station and vehicles which frequented the miserable car park where Tidemill stands are neatly arrayed in the new tree-lined parking boulevard in Frankham Street.

The biggest surprise of all comes when the market stalls and greasy spoons lining Deptford High Street part to reveal the new civic, granite-paved world of Giffin Square, conjured out of a bomb site. At its opposite end, a gold screen with graded, perforated panels gently cranks on plan, tilts its coping and raises its hem to display the new library at ground floor level through a bank of glazed doors.

This is the Deptford Lounge. A large metal oxide-green window turns the corner of the community centre’s main hall on the first floor and, as you walk past it on the opposite side of Giffin Street, you might catch a glimpse of action on the roof-level sports pitch through the screen.

But where is the school? If it wasn’t for the large sign in the corner of the square and children’s voices, you’d never know it was there. It’s surrounded by Deptford Lounge, PTE’s new studios and flats, Resolution Studios, which screen out the railway, warehouses (which the practice retrofitted as school accommodation) and, on the fourth side, a screen wall and gateway which is the usual ingress for pupils and parents.

‘We didn’t want children waiting in Giffin Square and to have a secure main entrance there would have been difficult with 450 children, their parents, bikes and prams,’ says Delacy-Taylor.

But what is cleverest about the development is that, in a sense, you have seen the school - now an academy - from the square, because it shares much of its accommodation, including a flexible suite of assembly spaces, a dining hall, kitchens, library and sports and recreation facilities, with the Lounge. In this 3D jigsaw puzzle, the boundary between the school and its gold-clad neighbour advances and retreats as pupils occupy the Lounge during school hours and the rest of the community crosses over to the academy at other times to study Arabic or aerobics, all controlled by doors, shutters, screens and fobs.

It’s that familiar trick of timetabling to increase available space, which makes a lot of sense when so many of the co-located activities take place in normal school hours (9am to 3pm) during term time.

‘The brief asked for the school to be intertwined with Deptford Lounge, so it got a lot more space,’ says PTE’s design architect, Hamish Kilford-Brown. ‘It’s common for housing and schools to do this on the Continent.’

Space standards in the school seem noticeably more generous as a result and its arrangement of classrooms paired around group rooms is adaptable, but practical. Also, the quality of construction, though design and build, clunky and un-funky, is far from shoddy, which makes for good acoustic separation and low infiltration.

Because the school is land-locked, less was spent on external walling and it was easier to comply with Part L while surrounding the cloister with floor-to-ceiling glazing, helping the classrooms to connect with it visually and providing daylight and ventilation.

This cloister, like a prairie ranch, which Kilford-Brown calls an oasis, is the best thing about the school. As with its smaller internal courtyards, which are pleasantly surprising incidents, the quality of landscape design and specification is high. The broad, colourful gangways up to the first-floor deck and the play space, wholly designed by the pupils, are a riot. But it’s not the detail that makes this cloister. The beauty of this hidden world is in the very act of concealment. Unlike board schools, which are proclamations, Tidemill cherishes and protects its children in a special introverted world. The ghetto is without.

Conversely, Deptford Lounge’s screen wall, in both a positive and negative sense, feels ephemeral. Gold cladding seems to be making its way into many practice’s portfolios and here it is rationalised by references to Deptford Creek’s Tudor galleons and shining community beacons. But what is good about this extraverted gesture is the way it relieves Tidemill of any pressure to assert itself as an architectural statement and allows it to simply and effectively get on with the essential business of being a school which actively promotes community cohesion.

AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and data of Pollard Thomas Edwards’ Tidemill Academy

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