Turn empty shops and offices into schools, says charity

Government urged to learn new three Rs – refresh, refurbish and reuse – to solve buildings crisis.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The school run could be combined with the grocery run if the Government adopts proposals to make it easier for new schools to open in a range of deserted buildings – from empty shops and old office blocks to abandoned churches and retail parks.

Campaigners want planning laws overhauled so that schools can use "dead space" such as Norgas House in Newcastle, the former headquarters for Northern Gas, which has lain vacant for more than a decade, or the old Bolingbroke Hospital in Wandsworth, south-west London, which was shut down two years ago. The axing of England's £7.5bn school rebuilding programme has exacerbated the need for a new approach, they say.

Ty Goddard, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments (BCSE), said turning old shops, offices and churches into schools could create hundreds of thousands of new pupil places. "We all see buildings that are a blight on our daily lives. I'm saying, 'local authorities: wake up to the massive assets you have in your portfolio.' Lots of buildings are going to waste. We're looking at the potential for them to be refurbished to provide more learning spaces."

The BCSE, an independent education charity, will this week call on the Government to adopt what it calls a new approach to the three Rs – refresh, refurbish and reuse – to make schools work. In a report to be presented to ministers, it says a variety of unused buildings, including empty units in out-of-town retail parks and abandoned factories, could make ideal learning spaces if converted with imagination.

Where space is tight, such as in a derelict high street shop, schools will need to be flexible about the facilities they need, the report will say. If there is no room for playing fields, for example, the school could use a municipal leisure centre for its sports lessons, or if there is no space for a dining room, then sandwiches could be delivered for lunch.

The concept has already found favour with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who, at the Conservative conference this month, promised to open new academies in the 100-plus buildings that the Department of Education either owns or has a lease on. "There is floor space in those buildings lying empty or under-used, when every resource we have should be put at the service of children," he said. And last week the Department for Communities and Local Government launched a consultation process on changing planning laws for schools.

Mr Gove is drawing inspiration from countries such as Sweden, New Zealand and the United States, where schools have all opened in converted buildings. Steve Bolingbroke, who runs the UK arm of Kunskapsskolan, a company that runs 32 Swedish schools in buildings that started life as something else, believes the UK offers plenty of scope for similar schools. "It's more complicated here. You need space for exam halls, which don't exist in Sweden because there are no formal exams. There are very strict regulations regarding the distances between desks, for example," he said. In Sweden classrooms operate in anything from an old astronomical observatory to a former boat building shed in the Malmo docks.

So far, just one British school has used old office space to accommodate its pupils. Bristol Cathedral Choir School, which moved from the independent sector to become an academy in 2008, converted an empty office block into new computing, maths and foreign language departments.

The proposals have been given short shrift by teachers, however. The National Union of Teachers said it was "nonsense" to imagine all the facilities needed for a large comprehensive could be contained within any spare bit of space.