School architecture forms part of the visual culture of education. Buildings that are built as schools, whether they still operate as such, form part of a readily accessible public archive of the history of education. Yet, as they weave themselves in to evolving landscapes, schools become hidden in plain sight. If not demolished, they may be abandoned or transformed and repurposed. Nevertheless, as Burke and Grosvenor (2008) observe school buildings remain recognisable as schools and, as Harwood states “Victorian schools have a visual interest as local landmarks” (2010: 1). Today, as reference point for nostalgia it might be easy to forget that they once represented beacons of civilisation as this conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shows:
Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.
The Board schools.
Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England, of the future
Such beacons were lighting up the Scottish landscape too. Scotland Street School on Glasgow’s Southside was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with building completed in 1906. Opening at the start of the school year in August 1906 with a capacity of 1250 pupils it ceased to function as a school in 1979 by which time the school roll had dropped to below 100. Today, with an absence of housing surrounding the school it is difficult to picture the community it served. Many buildings in the vicinity, whilst still standing, are empty and derelict although there are signs suggesting regeneration and the promise of something better.
Ian Mitchell, in a blog post about the history of the school, puts it well:
It was once the local jewel in the crown, now it is more an oasis in a desert.
Located in Tradeston, the area around the Scotland Street School was once densely populated, hence the need for a school with such a capacity. Following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 which made education compulsory for 5-13 year olds, the School Boards of Glasgow embarked on a building programme to accommodate children requiring schooling. The Scotch Education department prescribed single storey schools, but multi-storey schools, such as the Scotland Street School were a practical response given the limited space and expense that this ruling would involve in a city like Glasgow (Hamilton, 2011). Similarly, the practice of employing one architect was rejected on the grounds of expediency needed to complete the school building project across the different School Boards in Glasgow.
The result is a three-storey building with baronial inspired towered staircases with leaded glass, and glass bounded classrooms situated on either side of a corridor to make maximum use of natural light. The Scottish thistle is integral to the fabric of the building, appearing on the railings, carved into the stone work, as well as appearing in the glasswork in the towers (see how the green triangles and blue circles on different storeys form the thistles).
Today, a category A listed building, Scotland Street School is museum. The flyer alerting visitors to its existence recommends this as “must see for fans of Charles Rennie Mackintosh”. It is equally a must if your interest lies in the history of education, but unless you are specifically looking for it, you are unlikely to find it on a brief trip to Glasgow. Located across from Shields Road Subway is probably the quickest way to reach it. If like me you prefer to walk, head across Tradeston Bridge and walk long West Street where, en route, you can see the architectural remnants of long gone industries.
In one of the former classrooms, Alexander Shaw’s The Children’s Story a 1938 documentary celebrating Scotland’s education system plays on a loop. The opening statement reminds us that state schooling demonstrates civic pride and provides an imaginary for a better future:
In Scotland today, the first country in the world to have universal education, the focus of attention is the nation’s 800,000 children. In schools all over Scotland a revolution is taking place, teachers are discovering new ways to prepare their children for citizenship in the modern world.