The Twentieth Century Society

Review: England’s Schools: history, architecture & adaption

Elain Harwood (English Heritage, £9.99)

Reviewed by Ian McInnes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes describe schools as ‘beacons of the future’, a quote which opens this compact English Heritage publication. Its content confirms that a desire for improvement in educational standards has always been the driving force behind school development.

The history is comprehensive. From a personal point of view, it was fascinating to see the single school-room plans prepared by the 1839 Government Education Committee – the point at which central government finally considered it should take a more focused interest in educating its future work force. I often wondered how they worked for more than one class – apparently with the extensive use of pupil teachers, the classroom assistants of today!

Regional schools in Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle and elsewhere are covered in detail, as are the London board schools from 1870 onwards, with their rational design and use of natural light. Infants were located on the ground floor with separate girls’ and boys’ accommodation above, and roof-top playgrounds where sites were tight.  These schools  benefited from a more structured approach to design, though the London County Council’s streamlined system to turn them out at a lower price has a familiar sound – it seems that school building costs have always been under pressure.

There are good chapters on the advances in school planning and layout promoted by George Widdows in Derbyshire in the early part of the C20, and the more progressive developments just before WWII with the Impington Village College and the Middlesex County Council schools. Also covered is Dennis Clarke Hall’s work in Yorkshire – a recent C20 Society casework item.

My one small reservation is that I would have liked to see more on post-war system-built schools.  I know they are now out of favour, but they were a genuine attempt to give children a better learning environment, and huge numbers of architects were employed to design them by many local authorities, not just the Greater London Council. There are no photos of the more typical schools, and the Sydenham school by Basil Spence on the front cover, although a fine building, is not really representative of the more typical low-rise product of the time.

The best chapter is probably the last, on new uses for old schools. If the buildings themselves are no longer suitable as schools – and sometimes that would just require a bit more effort by architects – they are certainly usable for other things, and while ideally these would be community uses, if residential or office development means that these buildings remain, that’s better than nothing. All in all, this is an excellent, well-illustrated and reasonably priced introduction to the history of English schools.

Published May 2012