The shadow of Squeers still hangs over an educational system that ought by now to be in the image of Henry Morris
In September 1969, the Architectural Review launched the brave and hard-hitting Manplan. Today, this dark humanist manifesto still strikes a chord in the debate of architecture’s social responsibilities. This piece from Manplan 4 on education was republished on 16th October 2015
The shadow of Squeers still hangs over an educational system that ought by now to be in the image of Henry Morris. We have ceased to flog Latin verbs and children but we still build academies for young anti-ladies and gents where the three R’s and a few other matters are supposed to be mastered before they exchange their teachers and schooldays for the real world.
Surely the whole concept of ‘education’ is as old hat as the idea of an educational ‘system’. In this number of Manplan, that phrase has to be used because we are dealing with the existing set-up, but in fact the concept of school – schoolboy - school days - school-leaving age - not to mention the meaningless battles between primary and secondary, grammar and comprehensive - is about as dated - and corny - as William Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, or the ukase that children should go to school ‘properly dressed’. Think calmly if you can of those school caps with a quiff of hair raising the peak. Or those nubile misses in blazers and boaters. England, once the home of casual clothes, has become the moated grange of conventions long since discarded by the rest of the world.
If there is a school at all, it is the school of life, often a hard one, and since it is to this school we are all apprenticed from womb to tomb there is much to be said for a man-plan that would have at its centre a college of experience, a power house of skills, a production line of know-how, to which the citizen, old or young, can resort, as he would to the pub; except that in this case there would be no age or colour bar and the other bars would be more numerous-parallel in the gym; the rest offering disciplines proper to pram and nursery, teenager and Womens Institutes, Sunday painters, swimmers, carpenters, chefs, the stage, the dance, Greek, Latin and other languages-not forgetting standard English, a must for a nation of snobs strangled in the dialect of south London.
There is nothing new about this picture. The Danes were experimenting with something like it in the ‘90’s and so was Preston Search in his Los Angeles Education Park, while in England the physical foundations were laid by Henry Morris in Cambridge over a quarter of a century ago. Today the Ministry of Education and Leicester County Council are attempting to bring the comprehensive school and adult activities within the frame of one set of buildings known as a community college and in Nottinghamshire and Cumberland, Henry Swain has been enlarging the community college concept to include the community centre as a growth-pole to which other social services can be encouraged to gravitate in ‘the atmosphere of an Italian piazza.’ Dennis Howell, Minister of Sport, has summed the movement up by saying: ‘We should stop building schools as five-day-a-week institutions for children and start building complete educational campuses so that the whole community can use the facilities for sport, recreation and the arts’.
Here, however, one must pause; campus is one thing, except in its Japanese variations; an education park is another. Preston Search’s was to have covered 200 acres, a slice of the earth’s surface which, like a playing-field, could only be available on the outskirts of the city. Yet to be effective the community school or college must be located in the centre, as a complex of buildings and services available to every citizen-concert hall, stage, refectory, swimming-pool, sports hall, coffee bars, youth club, library, clinic, health centres, welfare and youth employment offices-most of which, sited elsewhere, would be empty half the day and all the night.
As indeed they are now. It means in practical terms one change in educational policy, but only one-a gentleman’s agreement to separate bricks from grass by leaving the playing fields where they are and returning the buildings to their proper place at the neighbourhood’s centre after unfrocking them as mere place of education for the young-as schools, that is-in favour of a more comprehensive concept than the current concept of the Comprehensive: A Comprehensive open at both ends, in which education, that dirty word, could vanish from the scene in the certainty that there is a passion burning bright within the race to acquire skills.
Such, as we understand it, is Richard Crossman’s Community Development Area (page 66), which has only one thing against it, its name. The village green, yes, the Community Development Area, no. We need an agency that will coin the kind of titles that can be lived with by self-respecting people. Dennis Howell’s Campus, for instance. Or, come to that, Gymnasium. Training naked. Used in England for the activities of muscle men; in Germany for academies of higher education; by Dr Johnson in the same sense (‘Cambridge and Oxford surpass the gymnasia of foreign countries’); and in India for the disciplines of that ascetic sect known as the gymnosophists.
Three significant uses for one word. The cost of this revolution? Nothing. Nothing more, that is, than we are now spending on half-empty school buildings and other services. An economy in fact. The facilities exist already but under a separatist oath or covenant by which, since none shall sustain the other either by finance, equipment or shared space, all must undertake to occupy different outskirts of the establishment. And go on doing so despite the obvious fact that arealignment would make budgetary sense and provide the social nucleus that is so visibly lacking in our towns. A focus for the muscular and clever, but also for the bored, the lonely, the young, the old, the social engineer, the lone wolf. A counter-attraction to and complement of the caf’, the pub, the cinema, the Bingo Hall, the box, the dogs, the horses.
There’s a point of view amongst teachers which says in effect that the buildings don’t count. It’s the teaching that matters. And when budget time comes just that sort of decision has to be made-between teachers, teaching machines and classrooms. The trouble is that so little thought is given to beyond the next budget. Innovation flows readily from the educationists, and teachers’ independence ensures that there is no obstacle to experiment and innovation-in a few instances the architects are ready with spaces to serve them. But what of the head who describes taking over a new school as ‘Coming to terms with a building designed to be run on a system that is unacceptable to me’. In this case it was designed to be run as upper, middle and lower schools and the head is running it on a house system. The next one under construction has therefore been designed on the house system a Departmental minute notes: ‘The committee’s decision to implement a House structure must inevitably demand a Head who is committed to a House system’. In this case, which is pretty common, nobody who will . use this building has made the slightest contribution to the design. It has all come from the committee, and any teacher will tell you just how out of touch committees can be.
So that is one gap to be filled. Meanwhile the trend towards dual provision of facilities for school and community use and the physical implications of Plowden’s community school proposition are largely being ignored. The same old schools in the middle of the same old tarmac patches are being built. ‘The greatly enlarged slum clearance and redevelopment programmes of the next decade will offer enormous opportunities of progress (or lasting failure) on all these matters in the older cities’, says Plowden about community schools. There is plenty of support for the idea but not much urgency to implement it. The need has been identified: more money allocated for teachers and toilets and that’s about as far as it’s gone. ‘We’re coming to terms with the problem but there are many obstacles,’ says the Liverpool Education Department for instance. Yet the subject wasn’t even touched on in the architects’ brief for their latest comprehensive. Here as elsewhere the problem and the solution is not just in the architectural concept of the community school. First and foremost it’s educational and social: an attempt to make up for the deprived cultural environment of many children whoseparents care little about their schooling.
The EPA Action Research Projects are developing ways and means of creating parental and community interest in the school and reorientating curricula to have much greater relevance to community needs. Here the detailed implications of Plowden are being worked out, but any attempt to integrate socially is inevitably helped or hindered by the physical organization of the elements. As one research worker puts it, ‘Ideally the school and the community should be indistinguishable’,and Plowden points out ‘These requirements call for a particularly difficult and challenging blend of protection from the surrounding urban enviornment, and exposure to neighbours and community’.
Here is a gap that is probably growing wider rather than closing. The trend, at least in secondary schools (to which the Plowden ideals seem to have been implicitly extended), is towards large isolated campuses on surburban sites. Here and there architects have been able to dabble in what is an attractive variation on the mundane school brief, but most of the successes, such as the much-heralded Bingham Comprehensive, are not so much architectural as administrative. That getting a Rural District Council to pay for 60 per cent of a sports centre is a landmark in design for education is a measure of how far we have to go.
It needs to be recognized that the community school is an educational concept which demands the right environment to operate at it’s full potential. It has to be understood first at a strategic planning level in terms of location of schools and other facilities. The next critical level is one of urban design, with the need to create functional as well as social links. Lastly, the right sort of buildings have to be provided within this urban design framework, and here the magic answer seems to be flexibility. Flexibility not only to adjust to changing educational methods but to adapt to a changing role in the community.
But the most serious gap remains at the administrative level. Educational and environmental innovation can come fairly readily through the efforts of teachers and architects. The administrators merely need to sanction it. Their creative contribution- getting their heads together with other departments, each contributing its own share of the finance and making the community school (or gymnasium) more than just a dream of educationalist and architects-is much too important to develop at the current slow pace. The time has come to do more than ‘begin to come to terms with the problem.’ It isn’t all that big anyway.