The main difference between primary and secondary schools is that primary education is enjoyable and secondary education is absolutely dreary and boring
Originally published in AR January 1970, this piece was republished online in October 2015
Secondary schools are where the arguments really start. Like all educational innovations, comprehensive schools have been the subject of lengthy acrimonious political controversy with both sides taking up entrenched positions. They now seem to have acquired an acceptable status, and the argument is chiefly about the pace at which existing schools should be ‘integrated’.
The David Lister comprehensive school at Hull (above), by Lyons Israel and Ellis, of the Old Vie annexe fame, is one of a growing number - still far too few - of custom-built comprehensive schools. But the trouble about comps is, and this was the case when Lyons, Israel and Ellis started theirs, that there is still insufficient known about their ‘customs’ for them to be purpose built without a period of trial and error. The David Lister school, though, endowed with an outstanding headmaster, and a Civic Trust award winner in 1963, was shortsighted in its basic planning. All the classrooms are grouped into free standing blocks. At the end of a lesson, all change. And if it’s raining, then bad luck boys and girls of David Lister because you’re going to get wet.
Designed for 1500 students, the scheme focuses on a central group of two three-storey teaching blocks and an administration and library block. Arranged around these are single-storey house blocks with associated cycle sheds, a gymnasium block, craft and workshop blocks and a service road running round the perimeter. The end result of this enclosure is a deliberately introverted plan designed to screen the backs of the dilapidated houses which surround the site.
In the five years since the first block was opened at David Lister, Lyons, Israel and Ellis’s stark geometrical architecture, regulated by squares and golden sections, has worn well and remains spotless both inside and out. This may well be the result of the combination of strict discipline and maintenance, but quite likely the unconscious reaction of the children to good architecture has been to treat it with unusual care.
The trouble with politically steam-rollered change to the comprehensive system is the backlog of separate and outdated buildings which must inevitably defy operation of the real meaning of comprehensive education - open plan education in which movement is unrestricted. A mixture of old grammar school and new secondary buildings miles apart is hardly the happiest physical basis on which to implant integration. So Hull was lucky when it gained a brand new ‘Comp’ designed by Lyons, Israel and Ellis.
In 1967 the design of a new comprehensive school was the subject of a competition at Newport. As such it predictably produced extremes of thought and design-there were those who conceived of it as a programme for architecture with a capital A and those who saw it as a brief for planning for infinite change. The final choice was a comprehensive of comprehensive monumentalism by Eldred Evans and David Shalev.
Newport County Borough asked for a 1,700 pupil school, 9 ¼ acres of playgrounds and 21½ acres of playing fields. The minimum teaching area was to be 69,810 sq ft and in addition 1,000 sq ft for an evening institute, 500 for a partial hearing unit and a youth club. The cost was not to exceed £733,000. The school was to have a first and second year lower school, a third, fourth and fifth year upper school and a sixth form. In addition it was to have a horizontal division into lower and upper schools and a vertical division into houses. The prize winning solution (above) by Eldred Evans and David Shalev splits the school into ten houses. Four are for lower school children with about 150 children each; four are for 225 upper school children with additional houses for sixth formers and staff. Laboratories and workshops are at the rear of the building with road access to the workshops at ground level. House units are repeated ten times, basically an activity area with removable roof, around which is an ‘L’ shaped house dining-room and circulation. Three classrooms, one fixed and two adaptable open on to the ‘L’. Other spaces are adaptable for individual study carrels, music etc. Clever planning, but the school looks like being stuck with its house system for a long time.
The Foster Associates’ entry was by contrast a classic case of SCSD come to Britain. It would be eminently capable of meeting the criteria John Varzey gave at the RIBA Conference on education at Cambridge 1968 - increased curricular flexibility, increased community involvement, and changes in educational administration. The aim of their entry was twofold: to provide a system capable of meeting the needs of education from pram to plate glass university, and to produce the performance criteria for a thoroughly flexible component based system.
The roof structure, deep enough to take services, was to be used in a single storey structure which at times would be deep planned with air conditioning units planted on the roof. By running a central service reservation along the floor and other services overhead, Foster envisaged that partitions could be moved at will (in minutes), removed to allow room replanning (hours or weekend) or the whole building added to or contracted (vacations).
‘My ideal school would be run on the lines of the present university system. There would be no classrooms but lecture theatres; after each lecture the students would have to attend a discussion group consisting of a teacher and five students. In this discussion group they would discuss the ideas put over in the lecture. It would not be compulsory to attend the lectures, but would be compulsory to go to the discussion groups. The whole school would be run by a team of non-teaching managers whose sole job would be to look after the administrative side of the school. They would organize such things as timetables and registers. In doing this they would free teachers from such jobs as looking after school meals and handing out books’
T (boy), 16, The School that I’d like Penguin, 1969
The Rosebery project was designed by DES in association with Surrey County Council. It was planned to take account of rapidly changing sixth form organization, and published as a prototypical case study. The centre is planned to cater for a wide range of learning situations and group sizes. There are three large spaces, including a 120 seat lecture theatre, nine tutorial, five seminar and two open rooms all easily subdivided by furniture to provide for any sized group down to the one student-one teacher level, and for study. There are 110 carrels - an up to date version of Winchester College’s toys - separated by open cubicles for private study. All the furniture was designed for the centre by DES. But the most important lesson from Rosebery is that the distinction between university and secondary education is almost nil. The carefree atmosphere with umbrella-shaded outdoor tables, powder room, lounge, common room and its coffee bar, makes it an ideal school for day and night use (which does not happen) and an outstanding testimony to a good headmistress and a humanitarian DES.
The Rosebery sixth form centre in any case is an egalitarian affair. 300 girls enter from secondary modern, independent and boarding schools over a wide area. Rosebery’s delightfully informal atmosphere belongs as much to the university as to a school.
Rosebery’s architecture is undeniably humdrum. Its atmosphere is terrific. Leek Secondary School in Staffordshire -has both architecture and atmosphere - whether it is the Bleak House aura of the old Victorian school or the charm of the new alongside.
Inside the Leek Secondary School there is for secondary education a refreshing freedom - painted feet cross the ceiling of the girls’ common room, walls are decked out with pictures and paintings. The school is alive and the architecture is robust.
Leek is on the edge of the Peak District – hence the local stone. In fact the school governors chose Yorke Rosenberg Mardall only after they have seen another school in stone by the same firm at Warslow in the same area. The school is a Church of England mixed one.
Originally the new building was to be a secondary modern, but with comprehensive reorganization it joined up with the old school to become a comprehensive for 450 boys and 460 girls.
The single storey assembly-hall/gymnasium and practical blocks form the long arm of an L and the two storey teaching block the short. Within the practical block is an interior courtyard used for boat building and similar large scale handicraft activites. The construction and finishes - stone faced blocks, exposed concrete parapet beams, pitched roofs with concrete slates – are well suited to the tough landscape around it.
Pudsey Crawshaw Secondary School, by Gillinson Barnett & Partners, is a simple demonstration of what arbitrary cuts in the education budget can force a county council to economise on, and how fast authorities have to build to keep up with demand.
Stage 1 is a straightforward four form entry school for 600 pupils. Stage 2, which will not be built for some time, consists of a sports hall and a first year suite. As the school stands amidst a community the pity is that the County Council has had to leave the sports hall until later and that there seems to be no thought of combining it with use by the public after hours.
The site was already partially occupied by a school built just five years previously, so the new school had to be sited to make working between the two possible. The area for playing fields is severely limited, so the architects decided to build one simple block rather than a campus style plan. Accordingly the block has been built to take advantages of a sloping site on the same principle as Denys Lasdun‘s Green Park flats - double height main rooms (assembly hall etc. at Pudsey) alongside two storey subsidiary rooms, the difference being here that an additional top floor oversails the split level floors below. These top floor rooms are all the classrooms and practical rooms – with the advantages of views and excellent natural light. Below them at the southern end are the assembly and lecture halls and the gymnasium - all double height. Beyond at the northern end at the upper level are fifth form rooms and the library and on the ground floor below fifth and first year common rooms and the entrance. At the southern end are the bottom halves of the larger rooms. The music rooms are in a separate but linked wing to the east. At the southern end the land falls sufficiently to allow a fourth storey to be accommodated in which are the cloak and changing rooms. While the basic building is a simple rectangle, each floor overhangs the one below it so that on the south west façade there is a deep colonnade which gives it some relief.
Pudsey incorporates many of the concepts of the Newsom Report on secondary education. In particular it breaks down the traditional distinction between practical and academic subjects by planning so that they can be taught in conjunction. The old school is a fairly typical 1930’s ‘non building’. Nonetheless the architects have taken up the challenge of forming an interesting relationship between new and old by creating a courtyard with, on one side, a covered way linking the two disparate parts and, on the others, the glazed dining room and one of a number of ‘rectangular’ octagons. The new complex bends back on itself to form a second landscaped court.
Shanks & Leighton, in adding to an old school at Enniskillen, were tackling a problem which is likely increasingly to occupy architects in Britain as existing schools are converted into comprehensives. This staircase tower leads to the new classrooms.
The new buildings at Enniskillen Collegiate School for girls add 520 girls at one stroke. Like Pudsey the constricted site forced the architects to produce a multi-storey solution, but Shanks and Leighton, having been commissioned to add sympathetically to the existing school, have chosen to design it more as a complex wrapped round spaces. The general teaching areas are on the first and second floors. The ground floor is an open plan circulation area with entrance hall, cloakroom and dining hall with a glazed bay looking on to one of the new courtyards and the old school. This austere open-ended main courtyard is bred with the assembly hall and gymnasium and contains as a foil the octagonal music-room. The other side is formed by the teaching block on three floors with fine views. The staircases play an important visual role, accenting the separation of the various parts of the complex. There are six teaching classrooms and a 250 seat dining-room. A language laboratory has been housed in the old school.
Charford is a four form entry replacing an existing school in Bromsgrove. The three storey block contains the unspecialized classrooms on the two upper floors. The second floor is cantilevered out to give extra space to the history and geography rooms. To the north is a single storey block with the dining-room, the assembly hall, kitchen, gymnasium and changing rooms. To the east and south single storey specialized teaching rooms enclose a handsome brick paved courtyard.
The designers - Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners - had to tackle quite a different problem. Theirs was a landscape one. The school now stands where a derelict lint-mill once was. The redesigned mill pond and stream elevate a rather conventionally planned school into something inspiringly reminiscent of the Cambridge Backs. The classrooms are arranged around the pond so that canoeists perform directly below the windows.
Leicestershire County Council is rapidly proving itself one of the most advanced education authorities in Britain. The lessons learnt from Glenfield primary school were rather bravely applied to a secondary school. What may seem orthodoxy now was heresy at the time. Oadby Manor High School was virtually the first open plan, team teaching secondary school in the country. It leads Redbridge primary by a head’s start.
The county architect in his note on Oadby School is honest enough to admit that ‘architecturally there is nothing out of the ordinary in the external treatment’ but internally the school is unique so far. Designed for 12 to 14 year olds, the central core of the school - a large library and resource area - is surrounded by classrooms grouped for team teaching in fours like Glenfield. Some of the classrooms have no windows, relying instead on rooflights. They do however have internal windows on to the library. This adds to the introspective character of the school. Unlike Pudsey however, the practical and academic rooms are separated though the practical rooms themselves are, unusually, open plan. The exceptions to the academic/practical apartheid are the science rooms.
Eighteen years ago two youngsters - Powell and Moya - electrified the architectural world with their riverside housing in Pimlico. Pimlico is yet again the scene of architectural ferment. The comprehensive school, designed by the GLC and opening this year, is an archetypal urban comprehensive-school building problem, set in the heart of a Victorian area with no space and lots of traffic. With its magnificent swimming pool and gymnasium it lies like an elegant ship stranded in a London square.
Pimlico comprehensive is designed on an heroic scale - 1725 boys and girls between 11 and 18 trudging across Westminster and Chelsea to go to what will undoubtedly be Britain’s finest comprehensive school. The long, patent glazed and concrete form lies surrounded by a 10 ft deep moat which gives protected playspace away from much of the noise of traffic beating alongside it. At 4½ acres it is sub-standard - in theory.
In practice it is as much a demonstration as Habitat at Expo 1967 that high density can give more privacy, not less. The playing areas of Pimlico are a good deal more private at street level than the playing fields of Eton. Basically the building is four storey - one below pavement level and three above. The ground floor is the circulation core of the entire school and can be entered at either end. Going into the school the impression is of walking into a ship , and strange to say much of the planning is remarkably akin to the QE2 with all the rooms at two levels coming off the circulation spine and the rest coming off the regularly spaced staircases. The similarity doesn’ t end there. The splendid sixth form high up amidships allows the same sort of views land-bound as at sea. But the organization is much more rational than the QE2 ‘s. For one thing the school is divided into manageable vertical sections, eight in all to allow a house system to operate. Each house has a separate room - used for dining. The scale, despite the enormity of its length, stays human size and the circulation space on the ground floor is very wide to allow for wet weather use and for exhibitions. The lower ground floor houses the kitchens and various practical and science rooms plus, out on a single storey limb, some workshops with surprisingly narrow doors, low roofs and no lifting supports on the exposed roof structures. At the swimming-pool end evening use is planned with a youth centre. The structure is absolutely and totally Inflexible - all external walling is in - situ reinforced concrete. It is tailored closely to today’s needs; let’s hope the climate doesn’t change tomorrow.
‘On the face of it the comprehensive idea might suggest a step backwards: sheer size sound like a move away from the individual again and back to the awful days of the overcrowded school-room and the Dark Ages in education. Naturally this is nonsense. In the comprehensive the open plan is expressed, educationally, at a social level’
‘The new Pimlico comprehensive school for the Inner London Education Authority by Michael Powell and John Bancroft is large’ – 1750 places; the site is very confined – about the size of St George’s Square which adjoins it. It would be natural to assume, in these circumstances, that the problem would present a big building of an overwhelming scale and an interior congested with a maze of rooms. A design of this kind would, however, he game of relationships between architect and clients has worked out and, miraculously, the large building dissolved into a large interior that has a personal scale. That such a thing is possible merely proves that imaginative, sensitive and intelligent architects are indispensable to the educational programme, as they are to any other.’
Stephen Gardiner, Schools 1870-1970 Duckworth, 1970
‘At present, the main difference between primary and secondary schools is that primary education is enjoyable and secondary education is absolutely dreary and boring’
13 year old boy, The School that I’d Like, Penguin, 1969
But Pimlico is exceptional - and is likely to remain so for some long time. For educationists have once again stolen a march. The physical fabric in which teachers have to perform is under sentence. They did it post-war when hundreds of primary schools became obsolete overnight - not because of an inherent architectural vice (a number of village schools have already been snapped up as holiday homes),but because the teaching programme had changed. Similarly the almost overnight creation of large-scale comprehensives from existing oddments spells the death of hundreds of secondary schools that cannot be tailored to suit another educational revolution. There are fortunately some that can adapt. So DES has taken the initiative with a guinea pig project.
The problem of the 70s for most education authorities will not be the new schools – the primaries or the comprehensives. Provided the land is there and the scheme has been included in the current programme by the Minister, all will be well. No, it’s the comprehensives in name only - the hotch potch of buildings left over from one system to be rudely incorporated into another. The money simply isn’t there to pull down and start all over again. It has to be a slow process - of make do and mend in some cases-rebuilding where and when possible, rehabilitating where it makes good economic sense and choosing which schools to add to and which to put on the obsolete list. The scale of the problem is as yet largely unrecognized. A DES survey in 1962 found that 750,000 primary school children (one third of the total) were in schools built before 1875. And it was estimated that the total cost of bringing all primary and secondary schools in England up to current Building Regulations would be in the region of £1,268 million. Add to that the extra costs involved in changing the system over to comprehensive and the backlog becomes daunting. And what makes the problem more acute is that although there are 6,000 secondaryschools in England and Wales, a large number of which have been built since the last war, practically none - old or new – have been designed as comprehensive schools. According to the DES ‘Most are too small to serve without very substantial enlargement, as comprehensive schools for the 11 to 18 age range; but many can be used, with compratively minor adaptation, as junior or senior components in a two-tier system’. DES was quick off the mark-it produced two Building Bullentins, the first in 1963 entitled ‘Remodelling old Schools’ BB2l and the second, more reluctant one in 1967: ‘Comprehensive Schools from existing buildings’ BB40. What Building Bulletin 40 did was to discuss five case studies carried out by the Department. Unusually for DES documents the names of the schools were kept secret-by now surely some must have either gone ahead as planned or drastically altered the DS plans - or done nothing. One way or the other it would be very nice to do follow-up case studies, this time naming the school. The case studies were quite sufficient to show the very real problem of attempting in physical terms to reconcile the irreconciliable. And also the hope for conversion at a fairly cheap level where rebuilding is impossible. But then again the Bulletin spelt out the consequences in terms of the delay and disruption caused by major adaptations.
In September 1969 DES brought out a work in progress ‘Design note 2’ on the conversion of an existing secondary school into a comprehensive at Dronfield in Derbyshire. It is, as DES rightly make clear, the archetypal conversion case study. Derbyshire local education authority planned to enlarge the Henry Fanshaw mixed grammar school in Dronfield into a mixed senior comprehensive for 14-18 year olds. 11-14 years are taught in two nearby junior schools, Gosforth Junior Comprehensive and Gladys Buxton Junior Comprehensive, both of which were what used to be called secondary modern schools. The enlargement is planned in two stages – first from 350 to 750. The second stage is from 750 to 990. The main school is nineteenth century with a sizable extension dating from 1938. It now has six temporary buildings as well.
The existing school is roughly two L’s arranged around a square court with open space in a long wedge at the rear. Any expansion has to be at the rear where the land slopes upwards, making integration of new and old development difficult. The old school is to be converted to cater for subjects with limited equipment and environmental requirements such as history, geography, mathematics and the library, Priority in new building will be given to subjects with special requirements -, science, home economics, art, handicraft and physical education - and these will be accommodated in Phase 1 - a new system – built complex at the rear of the old block.
The link between the two will be a new social centre stategically located and deliberately articulated. On the ground floor is a dining-hall which can be used for recreational purposes. Above and overlooking the dining-hall through a central void are common rooms, seminar and tutorial spaces and a snack bar. Phase II will replace the temporary class rooms retained during Phase 1 and will be a smaller extension of the existing building to provide general teaching space.
The cost of Phase I new work comes out at 80s per sq ft; the cost of conversion 109s 8½d. Clearly conversion is going to be possible - at a cost. And the end result will perpetuate something which neither the DES, nor the County Council really wants. What seems to be needed is a series of well planned ideas competitions in quite different situations. The Plowden competition was worthwhile for primaries - what about a series for education’s other outcasts?
A forbidding façade of precast concrete panels belies the brilliant planning of the interior of the 1,500-strong South Shore High School in Chicago, by Fridstein and Filch. Completely dedicated to new teaching methods, it contains two internal clusters of hexagonal classrooms or laboratories lit by hexagonal light wells. Folding partitions between classrooms are electrically operated, and on the top science floor several laboratories share a revolving platform where demonstrations can be set up and moved around. The kernel, however, is the two-storey open-plan library, or educational resource centre, as the architects prefer to call it.
The lavish outlay in equipment is here justified not only because this is the upper school of the old High School on the other side of the road (and linked to it by a bridge), but also the library will be available to the community in the evenings. Along one wall at both levels are glassed-in studios for making and using audio-visual materials, and special windows are provided through which groups of students and teachers may watch when they are not participating. The carrels which line the perimeter and where students can work individually are all equipped with TV set, tape recorder, slide and film viewers and a teaching machine. They will be wired, amongst other things, for tapes of lectures that may have been missed or not fully understood.
The structure is a waffle slab (on a diamond grid to suit the hexagonal pattern) sitting on four lines of internal columns and load-bearing external walls. Except for the gym, the whole building is air-conditioned, and it is hoped that the budget will allow for most areas to be carpeted. Owing to the restricted site, which made it impossible to provide out-door recreational facilities, part of the ground floor is an open play area which can be turned into an ice-rink and, like the rest of the ground floor and library, is for community use.
Barrington Middle School (at Barrington near Chicago) by Cone and Dornbusch is of special interest because of the way new ideas in education have influenced its design, and because of the consistent use of industrialized components. Intended for 1,200 -1,500 pre-adolescents as well as for community use, it is totally dedicated to the new teaching methods, and was planned with assistance from the teachers. Students are divided into groups of 100, each group being under the direction of a team of teachers. Teamwork is taken a step further even than in the most advanced schools by being applied to the administration of the school as well as to the teaching. The single-storey structure is basically rectilinear but, like Fridstein and Filch’s South Shore High School, contains within the three carpeted classroom wings polygonal spaces which can be eliminated, altered in shape or subdivided with folding doors. The plan is in the form of a cross with one arm extended around a study court. The library or learning centre stands suitably at the intersection, though the resulting through-traffic (there is no way of by-passing it) must be a mixed blessing. On the same axis and on the other side of the central court and administration is the ‘activities’ centre, a large hall which is used for exhibitions, theatre, assembly and lunches which are provided by hot and cold food-vending machines. The structure – steel columns, primary beams and deck trusses - is similar to SCSD, and is designed to be assembled on a 5-ft. module providing bay sizes from 10-ft. by 30ft. to 30ft. by 110ft.
The most solid advance in new teaching methods has taken place in America, mainly in two directions: technical, with the aid of equipment such as the language lab, the television set, the computer; and psychological, by developing student participation and by more personal teaching, favouring the potentialities of each individual.
But the emphasis on individual ability presents the danger of neglecting the child’s basic education in favour of his natural inclinations (the child who by the age of eight is advanced in, say, natural history, ·but unable to read properly); and aggravates the growing tendency to specialize, from an ever younger age, a tendency in which the teacher himself is also being required to act more and more as a specialist.
The Gymnasium Huckelhoven near Aachen, by Christoph and Brigitte Parade, is a pin wheel of four wings around a monumental space 40 ft. high, served by two staircases and overlooked by three tier s of galleries. There is a split-level arrangement between the ordinary classrooms in the south and west wings and the special classrooms in the north and east wings. The court is sunk, and there are steps up to the sports hall and headmaster’s house. The court is well protected by buildings, and will provide an effective public space both in a practical and a symbolical sense. For this school is interesting mainly for being conceived as an integral part of the town centre. Not only are many of its facilities available to the community, but there is also a healthy absense of physical barriers which makes the spaces between the buildings seem part of the greater whole, and not merely of their immediate surroundings. A miscalculation, which overestimated the capacity of the school site, has made this integration even more complete. The school hall (aula) and also cultural centre for the community, which was to have been part of the school complex, has had to be sited adjoining some of the public buildings which comprise the town centre. The disturbing aspects of this and the following school are the unrelieved expanse of brut concrete surfaces (no plaster anywhere, the architects proudly proclaim) and the positively sinister scale – Carceri - like, no less-of the multi-storey central halls.
The building complex of the Oberstufen-Schulhaus ‘Watt’ at Effretikon, Zurich, by Manuel Pauli, a vast comprehensive school, is centred around two courts , and consists of an entrance building (with music hall and recreation space), two four-storey arms of staggered classrooms embracing a landscape with a water garden, and a long rectangular block with its own entrance containing two gyms, workshops, a first-aid post with no less than 130 beds and an army centre. The buildings are linked by covered ways and the main court is linked to the garden by a magnificent flight of steps which incorporates a platform for open-air theatre. The relation of buildings to outdoor space is exceptionally well thought out, but the character of the architecture, especially in the circulation halls of the two classroom wings, remains forbidding. The teaching appears to be mainly on conventional lines, and there is little flexibility in the floor plans of the classroom wings. The buildings are intended to be used widely by the community both as a cultural and as a sports centre.