Victorian school buildings: please don't destroy our heritage

The Government's school building programme is putting 19th-century structures at risk. But campaigners are fighting back to save the 'wonderful' architecture
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When an 11-year-old girl wrote a letter to her head teacher requesting that her Victorian school be saved from demolition, few would have predicted the storm it would generate - both locally and nationally.

"It is a good strong building, and will probably last longer than the new one," said the Year Six pupil, Susannah Page, launching her letter-writing campaign to save Gilthill Primary School, in Kimberley, Nottinghamshire. "It is useful to learn about the Victorians, children like the building, and it seems it is only being knocked down to make a car park and part of the playground."

In her now infamous letter to the Eastwood & Kimberley Advertiser in 2003, Susannah asked the architect and council to redraft the plans, suggesting that the old school building stay. There followed an 18-month battle as parents, teachers and others fought over whether the building was "an educational nightmare", and a new school on the same site was the only option, as the county council maintained; or whether, as many in the community felt, it was a landmark that should be preserved.

"There were certainly pressures on the school, and improvements were needed," admits one of the leading campaigners, Susan McEntee. "But nobody dreamt that the building would be demolished."

However, as Susan and others boned up on what lay behind the council's thinking - in particular the Government's £45bn programme Building Schools for the Future (BSF) - demolition, they felt, was exactly what was intended. There seemed to be little consideration given to preserving the heritage of existing school buildings.

It is a view that is being raised nationally by The Victorian Society, which regards the Gilthill story as just one example of a "huge potential threat" facing Victorian school buildings, and which it is highlighting with a conference this autumn. Another example was the 11th-hour saving of Bonner Street School (built 1876) in Tower Hamlets, east London, earlier this year, which generated a lot of concerned calls to the society. And these examples could be the thin end of a wedge.

An estimated 3,000 schools are thought to have Victorian buildings, some of which could be at risk. There are so many that very few are listed or in conservation areas, either of which might offer them protection under planning legislation.

The tussle over the future of Gilthill and other schools led English Heritage to develop a policy statement on the future of Victorian schools, giving help to councillors and officers with no experience of heritage issues. "Even schools that are not listed can be fantastic buildings," says Tim Brennan, a senior policy officer with English Heritage. "They are often the centre of a community, and well worth keeping."

The nudge from English Heritage did at least make Nottinghamshire County Council do a heritage assessment of its schools. But it still did not stop two of its primary schools in Retford, one worthy of being listed, from being demolished.

English Heritage and others believe the shift towards new buildings over refurbishment stems from the vast injection of money - £17.5bn is available to BSF in 2005/06-2007/08 - for local authorities to do capital works on an unprecedented scale. In such situations it is easier for councils to knock down and rebuild rather than take stock of what they already have. It is possibly less costly than working out how existing buildings can be reused - and simpler than finding enough local tradesmen to do the job.

The aim of Building Schools for the Future is to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over the next 10 to 15 years. The idea is to provide space for new methods of learning, for IT and other specialisms, to improve access, and enhance environmental designs. But conservationists view the initiative as overly dogmatic and are concerned at the way it appears to dismiss old buildings as "inappropriate for new learning styles and, at worst, a real barrier to effective teaching".

The Government counters that refurbishment is an option - although the BSF website fails to mention or have a link to English Heritage's guidance. "The Government says old buildings are 'not fit for purpose', but they are sound and sturdy," says Kathryn Ferry, a caseworker at The Victorian Society. "Wireless technology, for example, should reduce the need for intrusive IT adaptations."

The problem is that there has been no capital expenditure on old school buildings for some time, she says, and as they become run down this further sways councils' decisions.

The Victorian Society recognises BSF's objective of ensuring that schools are up to their job, says Dr Ferry. But it would like to see the reuse of existing buildings rather than watch them rot away and be demolished. She is dismissive of the typical new school designs, that she calls "low-ceiling boxes". As an example of what can be done, she and Tim Brennan point to the excellent work being carried out in Hampshire.

In that county, Bob Wallbridge, Hampshire's assistant head of architecture, says he and his colleagues enjoy going into Victorian schools, and believe they create a richer environment for children.

Refurbishment may mean some new building, constructing a new, larger hall, for example. The critics are not against any new building. But they are against importing "codes of design" from outside - an error that was done with the construction of prefab buildings in the 1960s and 1970s, and that they fear is being repeated today.

Some councils have copied Hampshire's approach - but they remain a minority. "Sadly, we have seen the demise of many good local authority architectural practices," says Wallbridge. "They have lost their in-house expertise to respond when the opportunity and resources allow."

The tussle in Gilthill - where energetic campaigners won the backing of Prince Charles, The Civic Trust and Save Britain's Heritage - was eventually settled last year. A compromise meant that the school building was saved and sold off for flats, and the council, at an undisclosed extra cost, bought additional land to build a new school at the back of the site. During the debate, relations between the community and the council became more and more fractious.

Today, the two sides are talking again, but strong differences of opinion remain. McEntee and others in the newly formed Civic Society are now battling to safeguard DH Lawrence's infant school in neighbouring Greasley. "The council are only talking to us so that they can say they have," she says. "They would like to make the school redundant - if they could!"

The conference, Learning from the Past: the Future of Historic School Buildings, is in London on 15 November.; 020-8747 5895

From 1870 to today, a brief history of Victorian schools

Victorian schools originate from the 1870 Elementary Education Act. For the first time ever the Act made primary school education compulsory, which required the quick construction of a large number of schools.

The style of many of the buildings copied the work of ER Robson, architect to the London School Board. His designs were usually multistorey red-brick buildings, with multiple gables and segmental windows. Other characteristics were the height of windows from the floor - to minimise distraction to the children - and crowning cupolas, which may look like clock towers but are more often exhausts for heating systems.

Robson was influenced by a popular Queen Anne-style revival. This style was combined with an Anglican/gothic influence in Victorian schools in Birmingham, and an Italianate one in Yorkshire.

"The Victorian schools are wonderful bits of architecture," says Roy Lowe, an expert in schooling in Britain at the Institute of Education in London. "But it is often difficult to see how they can be adapted."

One good example of what can be achieved is the former neo-gothic Oozells Street School, in Lowe's native Birmingham. In the 1990s the building was transformed into the successful Ikon art gallery and café, with meeting rooms. But Lowe regards it as an exception. The school had the fortune of being well located, at the heart of the City's regeneration and retail development. RB