London Board schools

As we have seen, London board schools were built as a direct response to the government’s decision to provide primary education for all in the late-nineteenth century. They are usually four – or five-storey redbrick structures designed in the ‘Queen Anne’ style by E. R. Robson and his successor at the London Board, T. J. Bailey, and are far more elegant than the dreary, hermetic Gothic structures, which represented the church – sponsored education on offer previously (Girouard, 1984, see Bibliography). The new buildings provided extensive cross ventilation and daylight within an open secular environment, a truly modern universal experiment of its time. They were built high in dense urban environments because land was scarce and they needed to be located within walking distance of the pupils’ homes.

Soundly constructed, many are now ‘listed’ as having architectural merit. Most have continued for over a 100 years to house state primary schools. Over this period the buildings have undergone a number of physical changes. Originally separated, infants and junior schools have been combined. Sanitation has been improved. Gender separation between boys and girls has been abolished.

However, in some respects their physical fabric has resisted change, remaining intact well after their generating educational concepts have disappeared from the agenda. Board schools were meant to provide a ‘healthy’ educational environment. It was thought that physically and mentally weak children would benefit from large amounts of sun and fresh air in a climate of close supervision. This has left a heritage of cold, over­ventilated, monolithic cellular classrooms that are expensive to heat and difficult to adapt to the flexible and more open teaching spaces favoured now.

On tight sites the ground floor was sometimes left open at first, to act as a playground and then enclosed when sufficient surrounding land was acquired. Many board school roofs continue as ‘playgrounds with a view’. Corridors were kept to a minimum to save space. Each floor was centred on a hall. Classrooms started as alcoves off the hall, being curtained off according to the number of teaching staff available. Eventually the standard board school plan emerged, with classrooms leading off both these halls and secondary corridors that in turn served a series of staircases (Kelsall, 1983 and Dark, 1994, see Bibliography). Each hall is not usually large enough to allow the whole school to gather for assembly or to eat school dinners at a single sitting. Currently, halls are vestigial spaces requiring careful management of the timetable by the head teacher to put them to good use.

Originally, parents rarely passed through the school gates; these previously hallowed portals are now thrown wide open at the start and end of the school day and parents are welcomed into the classroom. With falling rolls, schools now need to attract new pupils by displaying an attractive public face. In many of these more forward thinking schools, foyer spaces, located next to entrances, often house changing displays of school work. With such permeability comes the danger of unwanted intrusion highlighted by the 1996 Dunblane tragedy.56 CCTV cameras have been installed to monitor school entrances that have become shop windows with a security filter.

In the UK, even in inner city locations, there are few examples of multi-storey primary schools built after the First World War.57 This is in contrast to the situation in the Netherlands. Jan Duiker’s Open Air School (1928-29) in Amsterdam and the work of Herman Hertzberger today are just some examples of Dutch multi-storey schools.

Even more so today there is a question mark over the suitability of London board school buildings for continued use as state primary schools. Their fabric is the antithesis of that of post Second World War primary schools that are long and low, well-insulated, lightweight, single-storey structures, painted in bright colours with warm wood finishes, broad areas of glazing and bright internal lighting. Board schools remain multi-storey structures with tall ceilings, multiple staircases and no lifts. They are thermally massive buildings with little or no insulation, and large areas of single glazing absorbing a disproportionate share of the school budget to heat in the winter.

In some areas where school age populations have diminished and board schools have been sold to developers, their striking and often listed facades have been successfully renovated and their interiors divided into lofted residential accommodation. Because of their centrally located city sites, these properties have proved irresistible to city workers, providing a vision of cleaned up heritage with superb views and a central location within a secure compound.