David Jamieson: Look north for proper inspiration in building schools

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Wardie Primary School has just celebrated its 80th anniversary, it recently had hundreds of visitors to its Doors Open Day event, and it is a much-loved community institution.

Much of this is due to excellent and dedicated teachers who are devoted to the children, but much is also due to a memorable building. It is designed on an “open air” principle where classrooms surround a central courtyard garden with playgrounds around the outside. This building 
provides a welcoming and inclusive environment which has given a rich learning experience for tens of thousands of children.

It is now one of four schools in north Edinburgh to be extended with a modular classroom block which will sit in one of these playgrounds. The proposals by the city council have created much debate within these schools which are desperate for more space, even without the rising rolls that are forcing the council to take action.

However, with these modular buildings an opportunity is being missed for well-designed, integrated and sustainable extension buildings that we could all be proud of and that could be celebrated in another 80 years’ time.

There is clear guidance on what constitutes a good school. The Scottish Government along with Cosla has published a document called Building Better Schools. Developing the themes of the Curriculum for Excellence, it promotes a vision of our schools being more than just a collection of education establishments but learning environments which are well designed, flexible and sustainable.

More specifically, it states that new school buildings, whether stand-alone or extensions, should be designed where the “emphasis must be on innovation and personalisation rather than on standardisation”.

The Scottish Government recognises that for too long fine school buildings have been surrounded by a tatty collection of quick-fix modular buildings, a constant reminder of the failure of successive council administrations to properly manage their estate.

Another prime recommendation of Building Better Schools is that our new school buildings should be sustainable and should lead by example in matters of environmental performance. The units proposed for Edinburgh have no green ambitions. They have small windows which will mean that electric lighting has to be used all day, corridors have no daylighting at all and there is no attempt to orientate the buildings for maximum solar gain to reduce energy consumption.

Worst of all is a lack of flexibility and a failure to recognise life-cycle costs which are highly significant components of a building’s sustainability credentials.

Another bad thing about the proposals for all four schools is the lack of any integrated design. There has been no assessment of the schools’ individual needs other than the requirement for extra classrooms. There is no examination of whether existing dining, gym and other general purpose space can cope with the additional numbers.

It is as if the council’s new strategy is that schools will consist of clusters of randomly designed classroom blocks surrounded by Tarmac. To get from one part of the school to another children have to put coats on – and it’s quite time-consuming trying to get 30 six-year-olds’ coats on – and go in and out through doors which have to be locked for security reasons.

The school illustrated below is a recently built primary school 12 miles north of Inverness. Designed by Highland Council’s in-house architecture department, it meets the aspirations of both the Curriculum for Excellence and Building Better Schools.

Interior spaces are flexible and filled with light, wood finishes abound, corridors are more than just spaces for moving around but are part of a continuous learning environment, externally the building is imaginative and memorable and is clad in robust materials which need little maintenance and which will age well – stainless steel and western red cedar.

There are really clever touches such as the mini private garden into which each classroom opens, to provide a buffer space to the wider playground – a daunting prospect for a five-year-old.

The amazing thing is that this building cost less than what is being proposed in Edinburgh. The council here reports that the new modular units will cost £2200 per square metre, the Highland school cost only £2100 per square metre, including the kind of landscaping that we in Edinburgh could only dream about.

The architects appointed for this project are capable of much more. They have just handed over the wonderful Holland Park School in London which exceeds the expectations of what a state sector school can be. The problem in this case is with the lack of a vision and a clear brief from Edinburgh that puts the ambitions of the Curriculum for Excellence at its heart.

We all need to be worried about these proposals. If these four units are deemed a success by the council – ie, they have them built on time in mid-August – then they say they are going to roll them out across all our primary schools to cope with Edinburgh’s rising population. Curriculum for Excellence? Not in Edinburgh – for our built environment, it’s a curriculum for mediocrity.

• David Jamieson is an architect and has children at Wardie Primary School.


FOUR Edinburgh primary schools – Wardie, Victoria, Trinity and Granton – are set to have extensions added to their premises by August, in the first stage of a project likely to cost £4 million.

However, critics have argued that a rushed approach has been taken to the work, and that repeated warnings over the rising roll numbers in Edinburgh schools have been ignored for many years, while seven schools were shut down.

Though the project is still at the consultation stage, there have also been questions asked about the timing of the consultations themselves. All four were launched right before Christmas, and it has been suggested that this was done deliberately to reduce the number of objections, as parents were likely to be busy and distracted.