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Are we going to battery-farm our children?

My son’s postwar school won’t win any awards for its design. I’d like to think that’s why they plan to demolish it. But the school faces a more sinister fate.

Hackney has its eyes on growing land values in this fast gentrifying London borough. It plans to demolish three primary schools and carve up the plots, building private homes for sale on designated education land. New schools will be rebuilt on a fraction of the original sites, some with twice as many pupils squeezed in. The mums at the school gates aren’t happy, but, ‘the mood music suggests it will happen anyway,’ one sighed after a community consultation meeting. The headteacher seems pleased. The watercolour feasibility plan is on display in the school entrance hall - the building hidden behind blurry children at play.

The proposed school is opposite a park, but the south-facing, high-rise residential towers will block the view and daylight. The school is built in their shadow. (Ironically, residential towers on this site were demolished 20 years ago as a sign of progress). The number of unaffordable homes crammed in doesn’t leave room for much else. Play spaces are on the roof, in permanent shade. As for the classrooms, there aren’t many windows. The corridors are internal, artificially lit rat-runs.

‘Hackney plans to demolish three primary schools and carve up the plots, building private homes for sale on designated education land.’

My son’s current school is not a gem. A chain of prefabricated boxes, it offers little delight. But it has design features that dignify it as a school. There are no corridors: the main entrance, classrooms, offices and hall are all located off a single reception space. You can’t get lost, and there are no hideouts for bullies. In addition, every classroom has a door to the playground through which students enter and exit, eliminating chaos and doubling as fire escapes. The doors can be left open for fresh air - a precious asset when so many schools are sealed boxes. Every classroom has its own toilet, eliminating that walk down an empty corridor to the stinky loos.

Visualisation of the Hackney plan to sell off school land and build residential housing on the Southern edge of the plot

Visualisation of the Hackney plan to sell off school land and build residential housing on the Southern edge of the plot

The outdoor spaces are also modest, but lovely. There’s a grassy hill with enough bushes and trees for a game of hide and seek, plus a bee hive, kitchen garden, football pitch and three surfaced play areas, one for nursery, one for reception and one for everyone else. It’s here that the poverty of the new school is laid bare: not a blade of grass, no sunlight, and two residential towers to look up to (and residents, looking down).

‘We once battery-farmed hens until it was found to be too cruel. Are we going to battery-farm our children?’

Children spend 30 per cent of their life in school, with profound effects on their health and development. A 2007 Danish study showed that fresh air ventilation rates are linked to pupil performance. In a study of 2,111 Spanish schoolchildren, time spent in (not near) green spaces reduced behavioural and emotional problems, reducing hyperactivity and improving ADHD scores. A six-year American study on 905 Massachusetts elementary schools found pupils in schools with more ‘greenness’ scored higher in standardised tests. Chinese scientists discovered a 23 per cent reduction in shortsightedness among children who spend an additional 40 minutes in the sun.

In a wealthy city such as London, there is no excuse for such poor stewardship of a land asset that, once sold, will be gone forever. With the shortage of school places, we will need education land to build on. We once battery-farmed hens until it was found to be too cruel. Are we going to battery-farm our children?

We build temples to human endeavour; museums and libraries that provoke feelings of higher purpose and continuity. Our schools must also be temples, not hothouses. Even a humble place of learning can be a sacred space. If you can’t afford architecture, let nature do what you cannot. ‘The answer may not be a building.’ There is no ceiling higher than the sky.

 

See the winners of the AR School awards

 

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