Too cool for a school: 'Socialist Eton' moves into new buildings with facilities to rival the real thing

Richard Garner gets a preview of Holland Park School's new home.

To slightly rephrase Mr Spock, "It's school, Jim, but not as we know it" – an apt comment when it comes to describing the new buildings of one of the country's most famous educational establishments, Holland Park School in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Next Monday, the 1,500 pupils of this London school will troop into the new five-storey building for their first lessons. They will wear overshoes – the type used by visitors to a building site while construction is under way – and gloves. According to Colin Hall, the school's head teacher: "It's a way of telling them they've got to be careful with the new building and treat it with respect."

Only 16 pupils have so far been selected to be show round the new school – and what they saw has been spread round by word of mouth, but Mr Hall admits: "It will be fascinating to see their reaction to it on day one."

Not for nothing is Holland Park known as the "socialist Eton". It was one of the very first comprehensive schools to be opened in the UK in 1958 and for a large part of the 1960s and 1970s it was one of the most popular. In its heyday it grew to have an intake of 2,000 pupils.

Its former alumni and former parents mark it out as almost a Who's Who of the left and – to a lesser extent – celebrity world. Tony and Caroline Benn sent their four children there, the former Home Secretary and founder of the SDP, Roy Jenkins, enrolled his son for the sixth form, the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee is a former pupil as is the actress Anjelica Huston.

Among the former teachers at the school are Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers – who taught French in 1973 – and perhaps surprisingly, Bryan Ferry, who taught pottery there before going on to head up Roxy Music.

In the brochure describing the history of the school, the borough says: "It was soon attended by the children of many a socialist grandee... but sadly the optimism and idealism weren't to last and by the 1970s the school had become a byword for all the ills of the nation's education system and the school of choice for few indeed."

That version of history would be disputed by many in the comprehensive movement and if there was a dip in standards it has already been reversed under the present school leadership.

The last report by the education standards watchdog Ofsted described the school as "outstanding" – a judgement that has been used by the school to convert it into an academy from next summer.

Colin Hall would agree that the 1950s buildings had passed their sell-by date. "They are too hot in summer and too cold in winter," he said. That will all change in the rebuild. The building, now five storeys high, is surrounded by fins, which will help keep the rooms at a constant temperature during the year.

Of course, this being Holland Park school, the new rebuild has been nothing if not controversial, stemming from the decision to sell off a former playing field for a development of 72 homes. However, the school and the council counters criticism by saying the decision to build upwards has freed up more land for playing fields. By the time the existing school buildings are demolished next summer, they will have been replaced by four AstroTurf pitches.

The deal to sell off the land also netted £105m – which not only left the council enough money for the rebuild but also left it with a significant sum to spend on improvements to other schools in the borough.

And if it's pupils' fitness that is the concern, the new buildings have a gym and fitness centre in the basement as well as a 25m swimming pool.

Make your way round the building and there are 36 specially designed general classrooms on the eastern side and rooms for specialist provision – arts, drama and science – on the western side. The walkways and the design of the school make it possible to see what is going on anywhere in the building.

Carry on up until the fifth floor of the building and there is the staff room – complete with reclining comfy chairs and a terrace area where teachers can sit outside and enjoy a spectacular view of London on warm days.

It is worth noting, too, that even the toilets are specially designed. The cubicles are unisex with doors going from the floor to the ceiling. The area that includes the washbasins is open on to the hallway so pupils can be seen washing their hands. The design is intended to stop bullying – which does go on in the toilets of many an old school building.

The school has also had its own particular brand of chair designed for the classrooms. The wooden chair, actually dubbed the "Holland Park" chair, is designed to be long lasting and put up with wear and tear.

The chairs have already excited the interest of other schools and at least one chic restaurant in London has ordered a batch. It's probably necessary to point out that the Holland Park reconstruction bears no relation to the new breed of "austerity schools" being planned under the Education Secretary Michael Gove's eagle-eyed pruning of the school capital budget.

Ministers have complained of the excesses of the previous Labour government's capital building project and have approved model plans to reduce the size allocated to classroom space in future designs.

That is not the order of the day at Holland Park. It has taken full advantage of its privileged position in the heart of one of the most expensive areas in London to raise funding for the capital project.

As a result, it has come up with a design that Mr Hall says was conceived to make the buildings "look as little like a school as they could".

He seems to have succeeded in that aim and also in ensuring that the school once dubbed the "socialist Eton" loses little by comparison to the real thing when it comes to designing a home for its pupils.

History of Holland Park

1957: School built despite protests from Sir John Betjeman and a group of local residents.

1958: School opens.

1973: School snubbed wedding of Princess Anne by working through the national holiday and giving pupils another day off instead.

2000: School visited by Nelson Mandela.

2004: Plans for the new building get underway.

2012: New school building opens.

2013: School to become an academy.

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