Back in the fifties, one council changed the way everybody built schools. And the buildings it created can now be born again as models of sustainability

While preparing to entering the fray for Hertfordshire’s Building Schools for the Future programme, I recently re-read Andrew Saint’s fine review of the achievements of the council’s post-war school building programme, Not Buildings but a Method of Building. It relates the story of the baby boom, and post-war reconstruction in the teeth of severe shortages of labour, materials and money. Against this backdrop a mix of progressive educationalists and a dynamic county architects’ department combined to generate an approach to school building that left its mark throughout our nation’s education estate.

What the individuals involved shared was a spirit of egalitarian “humanism”; the aim was to build schools that enabled pupils to aspire to lead richer, fuller lives. This led to a new building method, using lightweight structural steel grids clad in lightweight panels. These systems, known as Hill’s, SEAC and CLASP, spread across the country. Even Le Corbusier visited Hertfordshire to see the application of this revolutionary approach.

As we look back at these tired structures now, with their leaking roofs, poor insulation and regimented facades, it is difficult to appreciate the idealism of that era, but those of us immersed in the “BSF world” recognise that the aspirations of the fifties have resonance with much of the vision for transforming education today. So what can we learn from the big school building programme of the fifties and sixties?

It is important to recognise that, although the next school building programme after BSF will probably not happen until 2050, the nature of the curriculum and how educationalists want it to be delivered will change umpteen times before then. This need for flexibility was something that the fifties pioneers recognised. Avoiding load-bearing internal walls has enabled these schools to be altered over time. This is the embodiment of the long-life, loose-fit approach that Partnerships for Schools, Cabe and others now advocate.

Architects and educationalists recognised back then in Hertfordshire that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to school layouts, but that the building form and its infrastructure need to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of learning styles over time. It is heartening that investigations into the integrity of the underlying steel structures of the schools in the county have shown that they have a considerable life span remaining. The fact that Hertfordshire and others have taken the decision to reuse their system-built estate should be applauded because it represents the most environmentally sustainable approach.

The fact that Hertfordshire and others have taken
the decision to reuse their system-built estate should be applauded because it represents the most environmentally sustainable approach

Using much more sophisticated construction technology than was available when these buildings were first erected, we now have the opportunity to remodel the schools so they have excellent environmental conditions. In essence, we can re-imagine the sort of sophisticated buildings that our predecessors were unable to with the resources and technology available to them at the time.

To ensure that this happens, we need more clarity on environmental standards for new and refurbished schools. The guidance available often overlaps, contradicts or, worse, leaves gaps. There are useful tools such as BREEAM, but these are limited to the building – they don’t, for example, reward a project that is innovative in its choice of a local, healthy menu. It also fails to reward some of the big wins gained in designing a low or zero-carbon power network for the wider community.

Moreover, low-carbon funding from the Department for Children, Families and Schools applies to new-build only. We need BSF funding mechanisms to enable energy savings on refurbished schools, too.

We have the opportunity to give these dour buildings the faces they deserve. In our much more image-conscious era, tomorrow’s pupils will certainly appreciate that.