Don’t fence me in!

The fortification of the Allertonshire School

This photograph of my old secondary school shows a section of secure fencing and gates recently installed around the perimeter of the school grounds.  Until a few months ago the boundary of the school’s playing fields were marked by wooden fencing and open gateways. These enabled the playing fields to be used by anyone for access and, in keeping with their design, sporting activities.  The new fence, along with the factory-fresh lockable gates may signify a response to a real or perceived problem, and, as such this enceinte may come to be justified if the specific problem is seen to reduce or disappear.

However, problematising the arrival of this perimeter fencing reveals more fundamental concerns regarding the nature of schooling and the regulation of pupils.

One consideration is the way fencing demarcates the school as a site for education. Schools are locations where learning is territorialised; circumvallation of those locations re-territorialises learning.  The school, located within the community, is now segregated from that community, with a physical barrier which acts to include some while excluding others.

A related consideration is what the fencing says about the ways in which pupils are regulated within the school environment.  In her study of how the socio-spatial context of schools impacts on promoting citizenship among pupils, Brown states that “[s]chool architecture… embodies social attitudes towards children and their socialization”  (2012: 21).  With regards to playgrounds, while they appear to be spaces for young people, they are, as  Thomson points out  “a space conceived by adults to contain children at school” (2005: 76).

While concerns over the safety of either pupils and staff or buildings may have prompted the decision to cordon off the school grounds from the wider community, this enclosure may symbolise the existence of a much more significant threat to education and the development of responsible citizens

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Elain Harwood – England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation

“Our children deserve the very best learning environment that the education system can offer.” (p. vii)

This might seem an uncontroversial statement for Baroness Andrews to include in the foreword to Elain Harwood’s book on the changing forms of school buildings.  However, the following sentence indicates that such a belief is not a given, but a political commitment, as Andrews goes on to say:

“This view is reflected in the Government’s major programme to rebuild or refurbish England’s school buildings over a ten to fifteen year period” (p. vii)

This is reference to the previous Labour administration’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Thus, given the halting of BSF Elain Harwood’s book was almost out of date the moment it was published in 2010.  This fact too, highlights that the design, structure and form of school buildings is not random, but is shaped by a socio-political and economic context.

Harwood refers to the shaping influence of context on school building design throughout history.  It is understandable that she does not go far in this regard, (it is a brief guide to school architecture and listing after all) however, there is enough to whet the appetite and appreciate why a particular school building takes the form it does.

The section on comprehensive schools is rather confusing, referring as it does to the building of secondary modern schools, and, although many became comprehensive schools, the discussion in this section is not sufficiently developed. The contemporary significance of the section on prefabricated school buildings was probably not realised at the time of writing the book, but, the publication of the  Review of Education Capital gives immediate relevance to this topic. The design, structure and form of schools will continue to be shaped by the context in which they exist.  Whether school architecture will be motivated by a desire to give children the “very best learning environment that the education system can offer” is another matter.

England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation is published by English Heritage.

Flatpack Schools for the Future

Last month, Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital  was published. James, and his team reviewed the previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), which had the  “quixotic aim of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England by 2020” (2011: 12).  That judgement about BSF indicates the new policy discourse on school buildings.

BSF was felt to be too ambitious, quixotically so, thus, it comes as no surprise that, especially in an age of austerity, it is recommended that school building programmes need to be less ambitious.  One of the key recommendations arising from the review is that of standardisation:

“New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs.” (2011: 6)

Thus, the notion of Flat Pack Schools has been raised by the Guardian. The Review itself comes close to using the phrase ‘flatpack’ when it envisages that  “…off-site construction will be possible for some standard elements from plant rooms up to specialist classrooms”  before later going on to describe the  “modular build and the manufacture of standardised components off-site”  (ibid: 54)

The discourse of the Review justifies the flatpack option; BSF wasted time and money during the planning, and procurement stages. Times are hard, standardisation is cheaper. This sounds somewhat plausible.  More schools can be rebuilt or refurbished this way than under BSF (Or, alternatively the Conservatives build more schools than Labour).  It is reminiscent of the 1951 Conservative Government’s council housing policy, which saw changes in both the quantity and quality of new council houses [1].

Another rationale for standardising the school estate, according to the Review is the problematic involvement of head teachers and pupils in the design process.  The design of some schools might have reflected the pedagogical approach of a particular head, who would move on, presumably lumbering his or her successor with a building which was at odds with their pedagogical approach.  Similarly, pupils who were involved in the design process of their new school might never get the opportunity to experience the completed project, as they would leave school before the new building was ready. In one sense it sounds a reasonable reason for denying such users a voice.  Why should teachers and pupils design a school that, at best they will get to use, at best, only briefly?  At the same time,  it is a curious rationale.   Do teachers and pupils not have valuable experiences which can benefit future generations of users of those same buildings?  Should user consultation be stopped for every other project, building or otherwise?

Standardisation, the preferred solution to messy teacher and pupil involvement, thus denies these people a voice, but also gives control to the Government.  It is their pedagogical model that is to be imposed on new school buildings. Politicians will spend little time using these school buildings, which, apparently is a rationale for denying other users of school buildings a say in their design.

This discourse is at odds with the wider educational discourse of the current Government.  Last year Michael Gove proudly boasted:

“Teachers, not politicians, know best how to run schools”

Does the “greater freedom” promised, not apply to the design of buildings that these teachers will teach in?

This policy dismissal of pupils’ views on the design of their school buildings coincidentally comes at the same time as  The School I’d Like run by the Guardian.  School design, as well as other aspects of the curriculum featured among the young people’s recommendations.  There are some suggestions, which many teachers, parents and politicians would not want to see in schools,  like chocolate fountains, but, fundamentally children know what makes a good, comfortable school in which they are happy to learn.

The Private sector (or Public Schools) take a different approach, viewing their architectural resources as important assets which appeal to prospective parents.   Read Fiona Millar’s post on the Truth About Our Schools website.  She asks why, if school buildings have no transformational effect, Eton College is so keen to celebrate its resources in this regard.

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The London Lead Company School

This is a photograph of a school, established by the London Lead Company in 1861. It is located on the Alston Road in Middleton in Teesdale. Now, Middleton in Teessdale is a small market town in Upper Teesdale. Rural is an apt description. However, it is, or was a company town, meaning that, from small beginnings, the arrival of the London Lead Company transformed it into a significant  town, at the centre of the Teesdale lead mining industry.  The company funded the building of houses, brass bands, reading rooms, and the school.

It provided an elementary education for boys between the ages of 6 and 12, and for girls between the ages of 6 and 14 at a cost of 1d per week, per child.  This was almost 10 years before the 1870 Elementary Education Act, and nearly 20 years before education was made compulsory for children up to the age of 10.  The London Lead Company did not have to provide a school, but they did. It could be seen as an act of benevolence.  They certainly invested heavily in the communities in which they had mines, and from where they recruited their miners.  The London Lead Company had Quaker origins.  Certainly, Quakers have been associated with social reform, and the schools, the reading rooms and the other ‘good works’ may well be evidence of this.
There is another story, that poverty was rife, and living, and working conditions of miners were appalling.

The school itself, is rather grand, it looks like a church – the established church that is, and it could be argued that a school like that reflects wealth and prosperity,  not what you would immediately expect from Quakers.

The school building now serves as an outdoor activity centre.

Save our School Buildings

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.