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The great schools robbery

London’s schools are increasingly at risk of demolition, as the property bubble makes the playing fields they stand on prime redevelopment opportunities for heads faced with funding shortfalls.

The announcement by the Labour Government in 2004 of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, by which all secondary schools were to be rebuilt in spanking new form within a defined time-scale, with primary schools to follow, seemed from the first profligate as well as destructive. The relationship between new buildings and higher academic attainment was not established – after all it was the schools with the oldest buildings in the country (sometimes actually medieval) that had the best academic record. Many excellent school buildings seemed likely to be destroyed. Only detailed questioning of officials prised out clarification that ‘building’ could also include ‘refurbishing’, but the association of BSF (and the next Government’s more selective successor PSBP – Priority Schools Building Programme) with New Build was firmly established to the extent that schools with more than 10 per cent of their buildings listed as being of architectural or historic value were specifically excluded. This was because it was expected that works under these programmes would be carried out under PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives), whereby private consortia would fund the construction and maintenance of the new schools in return for a guaranteed pay-back, and it was thought they would be unable to achieve ‘value for money’ for this role if faced with the complexities of dealing with listed buildings.

One of the victims of this exclusion was the 1950s Grade 2-listed  LCC-designed Elliott School in Putney, where in consequence the Borough felt there was no alternative but to sell for development half of its magnificent playing fields to fund a much-needed refurbishment (during which process Elliott became the self-governing ‘Ark Academy’). An earlier victim was the 1970s ILEA (Inner London Education Authority)-designed Pimlico School which was rejected for listing but much admired and certainly adventurous in design. It was replaced by Westminster Council with a building of stunning ordinariness and with a large part of its never-generous site allocated to housing. There is a suspicion that when a school is ‘failing’ the temptation is to blame the building.


Islington green school

But experience shows that even when schools are rebuilt – and often converted into self-governing ‘academies’ at the same time, as with Islington Green School – the academic outcome is no better than it was before. Islington Green’s original impressive four-storey neo-Constructivist building by Scherrer and Hicks was replaced with a typically lightweight standard-pattern school of our time leaving only the listed free-standing William Mitchell mosaic wall from the previous school. Did any listable artwork form part of the new school?

‘In Islington a number of postwar schools of good architectural quality have in recent years been demolished, and now, another outstanding one is finally to go’

In Islington, the borough I know best, a number of postwar schools of good architectural quality have in recent years been demolished, and now, as a result of a planning committee decision this month, another outstanding one is finally to go. The former Angel School in Prebend Street, designed by prize-winning LCC-ILEA architect Jake Brown in a very careful and informed Corbusian concrete aesthetic, was demolished and its site filled with an ant-heap of cheap-looking housing, while the school itself – which had become a special-needs school – was transferred to the Holloway School site far away in the north of Borough. The sale of the original site for housing doubtless paid in large part for the rebuilding, which squeezed two schools onto a site formerly occupied by one. Similarly Highbury Grove School, an excellent building from the 1970s by distinguished practice James Cubitt and Partners, was demolished and rebuilt on the same site with an additional special-needs school alongside transferred from elsewhere.

While there may have been an element of idealism in the desire to bring special-needs schools onto the same sites as mainstream schools, it at least coincided neatly with financial objectives and the two schools look cramped on sites intended for one. The original Highbury Grove School was set well back on its site with trees and space around it, while the two new schools are a tight fit coming much closer to busy Highbury Grove. While the new school buildings doubtless perform better in use from an energy point of view, faced as they mostly are with aluminium-insulated cladding panels or match-boarding, this in itself lends them an air of insubstantiality, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a lifetime saving in energy.


The former Angel School in Prebend Street

Now Ashmount School, a primary on the northern edge of the Borough designed for the LCC in 1953-4 by HT Cadbury-Brown, one of the leading architects of the Festival of Britain and of the listed Royal College of Art, is finally to be demolished. Making imaginative use of the steel frame and curtain-walling Hills System of its time, it created a subtle Miesian composition of rectangular blocks on a steep site offering wide views over the whole of London to the south. Admired by architect Tim Ronalds for its double skin walls with glass-to-glass corners and by Professor Neil Jackson for its adventurous Case Study-like design, it was locally listed by the Council but twice rejected for national listing by English Heritage. A replacement school was built on Metropolitan Open Land nearby but – as a result of intervention by Education Secretary Michael Gove – a new Free School is to occupy half of its site, while housing will cover the rest. It never stood a chance.       

Despite all these demolitions and the inauspicious political situation, a different outcome is possible: for instance Greenside School in far-away Hammersmith, designed as a temporary structure by Cadbury-Brown’s friend and mentor Ernö Goldfinger in 1950, is listed and proudly cared for by the local community which has recently restored its Gordon Cullen mural with support from Norman Foster.

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