Last week, English Heritage called for more old school buildings to be saved from demolition. Instead of choosing such a final act, which, they claim destroys the fabric of history; more effort should be put into refurbishment. Refurbishment of old school buildings can, they claim ensure the building meets the needs of a contemporary schooling system.
The demolition of old buildings can provoke strong emotional reactions, and the desire to preserve the past can be seen in numerous popular discourses. Consider the popularity of TV programmes such as BBC TV’s Who do you think you are? or Restoration. The past is important for our economy, maintaining a tourist industry with the Heritage Industry replacing industry, which, still essential to our economy is done cheaper, and in some senses, more efficiently elsewhere, particularly where the labour is cheaper.
Experiencing the past (which we cannot do, of course) becomes attractive. When Jorvik, which told the story of Viking York opened, it offered the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds and smells of Viking York (from the comfort of a customer train with integral audio commentary). English Heritage actively encourage an experience of the past, from their Discovery Days, and their Time Travellers scheme for children. School days of the past can be recreated at Beamish, an open air museum which celebrates the everyday life of people from the North East of England. Of course, recreated in this sense cannot be achieved, for example we no longer permit corporal punishment, and we no longer sent children down mines or up chimneys. In official, or Government discourses history is recognised through listed buildings or preservation areas which limit the amount of new development that can take place, in an effort to preserve our cultural heritage. Blue Plaques appear on buildings where a famous person history lived or worked, or briefly visited. Political parties vie with one another to ensure that history is included on the national curriculum. Studying history thus becomes an important means of learning what it is to be British.
So, history is something which is something to be preserved. This is desired by the public and sanctioned by the Government and its agencies.
However, in terms of public services and in particular education modernisation and the future are on the agenda. In terms of buildings, one of the boasts of the current Government is the number of school buildings that have been built or refurbished. Building Schools for the Future (BSF) for example, is a UK Government policy agenda which is focused on the rebuilding of schools to make them fit for purpose in contemporary society. The argument is simple; schools should be designed with the future in mind. Thus, schools built in the Victorian days may have been appropriate for an industrial society where most children (working class children at least) left school to work in factories, or, for the girls work in service. The design of school buildings has changed over time, the modernist influences can be seen in many schools built in the 1970’s.
So, is the plea from English Heritage a reflection of sentimentality and a desire to preserve in aspic the educational architecture of yesteryear?
It would be if they really did want to preserve old school buildings in their original state. But they don’t.
The architecture of schools is important, those buildings reflect the educational ideologies of the periods in which they were built. The large airy rooms of Victorian school buildings, Grammar schools emulating the traditional Universities, the functional buildings of the 1970’s, and child centred, open planned classrooms. Ideologies change, the way we educate changes, the reason for educating changes,and so with it do buildings.
In itself this could be used as an argument for demolition and rebuilding with new contemporary fit for purpose designs. However old school buildings are important for reminding us about the purposes of education and if we simply pulled them down to replace them with something else what would this say about our historical perspective on education? The incorporation of old school buildings into contemporary education may well be important for retaining our understanding of the importance of education in our society. As a survey carried out by English Heritage discovered old school buildings were felt to give the locality an identity. Certainly, schools don’t ‘drop from the sky’ but are rooted in a social context and perhaps some degree of preservation while refurbishing to meet the needs of contemporary society might help preserve not just the building but a sense of identity.