They are big, bright, bold, and their loos are cutting edge. But sadly these two Birmingham schools are not the future – thanks to the government
“This,” says Hardeep Saini, “is yet another of our pride and joys.” The principal and I are in Park View school’s new canteen, an airy space with a bright red floor and big glass doors that open on to a courtyard lined with fine wooden columns. It is the fifth space Saini has described as a “pride and joy” as we tour this inner-city Birmingham comprehensive, a jumbled 1960s labyrinth of brick and concrete recently given a £8m refurbishment.
It’s the work of Haworth Tompkins architects, veterans of sensitive interventions in hallowed places, from the London Library to the National Theatre. This, however, is their first school. While the budget was modest for a building of this size, it has been deployed with great intelligence. “It was a process of selective dentistry,” says architect Jim Reed, “trying to unlock spaces and make the most of what is already there.”
Over the years, the school had been extended in the usual piecemeal way, leaving a dysfunctional complex of narrow corridors, dead ends and small classrooms. “Pupils were even scared to go down some corridors,” says Saini. “They were dark and dangerous.” The building itself had been cast adrift: separated from the street by a car park, it had no civic presence – something it badly needed in Alum Rock, a deprived part of Birmingham. “You didn’t even know it was a school,” says Lindsey Clark, executive principal, recalling how the previous entrance was buried at the foot of some steps. “It felt more like going down into a dungeon.”
A sloping, timber-covered walkway now reaches out into the street, providing a more dignified arrival. This wooden framework spreads elsewhere, connecting various levels and forming a new colonnade at ground level that leads through to the playground. It’s as if some giant wooden parasite has attached itself to the ailing carcass of the building and thrust out its timber tendrils to unite disparate parts.
Inside, classrooms have been opened up with glazed panels, corridor ceilings have been raised and walls removed to create “social learning zones”. Clark says: “We thought these would be a waste of space, but it’s one of the best investments we’ve made.” They are popular during breaks, and encourage a sense of independence: some students even used them to teach themselves an extra GCSE in philosophy and ethics.
The project is one of the last to be built through the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, New Labour’s £55bn project to rebuild or refurbish every one of England’s 3,500 secondary schools. Birmingham’s share of this included proposals for 89 schools, working with some of the country’s most innovative architects.
Only 21 have been delivered, after education secretary Michael Gove axed BSF two months into office, later proclaiming that “no one in this room is here to make architects richer”; he had already accused the profession of “creaming off cash”. Gove raged that BSF was “characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”. Much of this was true, if hardly the architects’ fault – still, the profession will be paying for being the target of Gove’s tirade for a long time.
“The procurement process was a nightmare and incredibly wasteful,” says Sunand Prasad, the ex-president of the RIBA, whose practice Penoyre & Prasad recently completed Moseley school, another BSF project in Birmingham. “It could cost as much as the school itself to select the private sector partner – up to £9m just to get to the starting block.”
Paralysed by EU directives and risk-averse public-private partnerships, BSF became a byword for red tape. Contractors, architects, engineers and consultants spent months duplicating each other’s work. There was also no mechanism for lessons learned to be passed on; nor could the programme benefit from economies of scale, as every scheme had to be bespoke. “Schools are very individual places, led by headteachers with very specific ideas,” says Richard Cottrell, whose practice Cottrell & Vermeulen did the stunning refurbishment of Broadway, another Birmingham school. “The ideal of a generic solution just didn’t fit.”
BSF nonetheless spawned a shift in school design by having architects at the centre of the process. “This advanced the way we think of spaces for education in this country,” says Prasad. “It saw a transformation in teaching, challenging the ‘chalk and talk’ nature of education and putting the focus on personalised learning.”
He singles out the emphasis on shared, social learning areas and places to teach outside the classroom, not to mention the importance placed on toilets – which BSF stressed as a key place for improvement, recommending tall, robust cubicles and open, unisex basin areas to discourage bullying. “If you get the toilets right, you get the teaching right,” proclaimed then schools minister David Miliband in 2004, when the scheme was launched. A touch glib perhaps, but such fundamentals – crucial to pupils’ everyday experience – had long been overlooked.
Radical loos are a key part of Birmingham’s new Four Dwellings primary school, designed by dRMM. Quirky, curvy and clad in cedar shingles sprinkled with stainless steel sparkles, the building’s outside edge is dotted with brightly coloured toilet pods. Not only have loos become a fun feature, they can be entered from inside or from the playground, a step teachers insist is nothing short of revolutionary.
Classrooms are arranged in an egg-shaped loop around a central hall. This has a bright yellow floor, intended to be the “yolk”, from which shared learning areas spill out. As at Park View, these are some of the most popular and effective teaching spaces. I catch bubble-painting and cooking classes on the ground floor, multiplication tests on the floor above. “We’ve tried to make the corridor work as a usable space,” says architect Adam Cossey, explaining that the loop amounts to “a roundabout of learning”.
The building is full of simple touches that make a big difference: classrooms are accessed directly from outside, via their individual play areas, meaning parents can meet teachers as they drop off their kids; and in an open-plan library by the main entrance, I see older pupils supervising younger ones in cosy reading nooks. “The children are now coming to school much earlier and waiting outside for the doors to open,” says headteacher Sandra Nicholson. “And they say ‘Good morning’ to us.”
As a curved building with some glazed walls, Four Dwellings would be outlawed under Gove’s ruling, which has put a halt to anything more than the most basic of shoeboxes, beckoning in a grim future of standardised flat-pack sheds, 15% smaller overall than BSF schools, squeezing space for corridors, assembly halls and canteens. Yet both Birmingham projects prove that bespoke design is no more expensive – in fact, Park View came in a good deal cheaper than the government’s new budget of £1,400/sq m.
“If the government set a budget and challenged architects and educationalists to work within that, there would be great innovation,” says Prasad. “But these standardised systems are a complete waste of money – we’re going to go back to serried ranks of classrooms off narrow corridors. They must learn that buildings realise their value over the long term.”
Architects were the obvious target for Gove to bash, as the symbolic maestros of the age of boom. Yet good design and careful planning proved no more costly than bad – the vast waste was in the procurement process. And as these late products of BSF show, the system was reaching a level of sophistication and efficiency just as it was axed. With BSF’s innovations now discarded, these inspiring buildings are destined to become remnants of a bygone era.