The government went out of its way to make it easier for free schools to be formed in non-school buildings by easing planning laws. So now that they’ve opened their doors, do they actually work? Take a look at two very different conversions…

The tangible results of Michael Gove’s cherished free schools policy are now there for all to see. The first 24 free schools opened in September with a further eight set to open next year and another 63 from September 2012. The cynics said it couldn’t be done. The doubters said parents didn’t have the time or skills to manage budgets, find premises or employ teachers, and that the policy was educationally divisive. But the education secretary, aided and abetted by journalist and campaigner Toby Young and various parent groups, has managed to pull it off.

For his part, Gove was determined to make it as easy as possible: any building could be converted into a school without planning permission and normal regulations wouldn’t apply. But would buildings designed to be supermarkets or health centres be suitable for converting into schools, which also have very specific but different requirements such as playgrounds and sports halls? To find out we asked architect and technical expert Peter Caplehorn to assess two recently opened free schools.

Caplehorn is the technical director of Scott Brownrigg and takes a no-nonsense approach to design and specification. He spends his time getting his head around complex building regulations and technical bulletins, then diligently researching the best way of meeting them. Only when he is satisfied that a solution works will he specify it on one of his own projects.
We chose two very different projects: a former community library in Acton, west London, that has been turned into a small primary school; and a former 17th-century country house near Slough, which has been converted into a larger primary school. What did Caplehorn find?

Ark Conway primary academy Acton, London

Free schools

Ark Conway is a one form entry primary school located in a residential part of Acton next to the busy A40, which links London with Oxford and Birmingham. It opened in September in a former library with just 30 pupils but the numbers will rise once a new building is constructed a few yards away. The non-selective, non-denominational school is being supported by education charity Ark, which has sponsored several academies including the Stirling prize-winning Evelyn Grace in London’s Brixton. The school is supported by the local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, as it helps with providing much needed school places; indeed, headmaster Damian McBeath says the council asked Ark to build a school here.

The building
The building is a tiny, purpose-built, single-storey community library that opened in 1930. It also included one of the first infant welfare centres at the back of the building. The grade II-listed library includes an attractive dome over an imposing entrance foyer from which users could access a reading room and lending library on each side with a reference room to the rear. Formerly on the English Heritage “at risk” register, the building was in poor condition with water pouring in through the roof.

What needed to be done?
The library and welfare centre was too small to provide a one form entry school for 4-11-year-olds so a new building will be constructed opposite the library. It will back onto the six-lane A40 to buffer noise and pollution from traffic, and a play area will be inserted between the two buildings. The budget is £2.6m with £800,000 already spent on converting the library. The work has been procured under the academies framework and was awarded to Apollo Education. Work started in June with barely two months to complete the job. Marcel Hendricks, Apollo Education’s divisional director, says it concentrated on getting critical areas ready and continued to work on the building exterior once the school opened. An accommodation schedule was provided as part of the brief and the school had to comply with the same rules and regulations, including the listing, as any other primary school. “We haven’t approached this any differently,” explains Hendricks, adding that the budget was the same as that for a council-run school.

Internally there has been some reorganisation, the former reference room and an internal courtyard has been turned into a headmaster’s study, kitchen and changing area for children. New heating and lighting systems have been installed and secondary glazing has been added to counteract traffic noise. A playground has also been created on one side of the building.

What’s it like?
First impressions are that it’s all very grand for such a small building: visitors pass through an elegant portico into the double-height foyer with a domed ceiling. This space has a marble compass at its centre, which has been adopted as the school logo. Attractive sets of glazed oak doors open onto classrooms on either side, which means McBeath can keep an eye on each classroom just by standing in the foyer. “A lot of schools have to plan in passive observation but we’ve got it all built in here,” he says. Historic paint colours have been chosen that enhance the thirties architecture.

Free schools

The classroom and school hall on either side of the foyer are brightly lit thanks to the generous glazing. The secondary glazing works well: “You can’t hear much traffic noise in here,” says Caplehorn. The school hall has been subdivided to create a staff room and group room and the thirties-style glazing has been carefully recreated for the new internal windows and doors needed for these rooms.

Any downsides?
Caplehorn points out the doors with original, annealed glazing are great for keeping an eye on things but could potentially be dangerous for children. But he accepts that the school has done its risk analysis and says the thirties glass is “pretty robust”.

Another downside is the listing. English Heritage insisted that a gravel soakway bordering the playground and the building was retained. The children delight in picking the gravel up and distributing it around the playground. Although Hendricks thinks there might still be a chance English Heritage will agree to the soakway going, the original railings have to stay. These will separate the new and old parts of the finished school. Apollo is negotiating with English Heritage to create a gap in the railings.

Probably the biggest downside is the huge, busy traffic artery on the school’s doorstep. Noise has been tackled with secondary glazing but pollution could be an issue.

The expert’s verdict

Free schools

“It’s a fantastic building with a lot of character that has been given a new lease of life, which I think is brilliant. There is a harmony between the aspirations of the headmaster and educational standards and the layout and quality of the building, which is really impressive.

“It’s got a really nice entrance and foyer, which is architecturally brilliant and a perfect central vestibule for the school. It’s fully glazed, so you can see what is going on in each classroom all at the same time. The volumes are lovely and work really well; there are high ceilings and surprisingly good lighting. The secondary glazing helps with the traffic noise, which is hardly perceptible. The acoustics are pretty good, there’s no reverberation, which must be largely down to the shape of the rooms.

“To me the only downside is pollution from the road. The high-level windows will allow a throughflow of air but the road could be a problem particularly in the summer when you want the doors and windows open. You could introduce a closed ventilation system but that would be a shame. It’s one of the things you can’t get away from and is something you have got to live with.”

The kids are all local so like it or not they are surrounded by it. It’s one of the things you can’t get away from and is something you have got to live with.”

Langley Hall primary academy Langley Berkshire

Free schools

Langley Hall primary academy is based in a former 17th-century country house located in the centre of Langley, just outside Slough. The school opened in September with 182 pupils and will ultimately be a two form entry school. The driving force behind the school is husband and wife team Chris and Sally Eaton who have 25 years’ experience of running independent schools. It is a non-selective school underpinned by Christian principles with a focus on music.

The free school concept has taken off in Langley and there is already a waiting list for places. “Parents identified with our ethos and were prepared to take a chance,” says Jane Sculpher, the head of school. “They were signing up even though they didn’t know who the head would be or where the school was.”

The building Langley Hall is a modest but imposing classical country house built by a royalist fleeing from the civil war in London. Two wings have subsequently been added to the house. More recently it was the HQ for Bomber Command in the Second World War and an orphanage for actors’ children. In 1988 it became part of neighbouring East Berkshire College and was used for offices. A recent reorganisation meant the building was no longer needed by the college so was taken over as a free school.

What needed to be done?
The building was in use as offices so was in reasonable condition. Work has concentrated on turning the tired and grubby offices into a shiny new school. The £1.8m project was procured under the academies framework and is being done by contractor Interserve.

There was no time to convert the whole building in one go so it is being done in three phases with 75% of the work completed in the £1.3m first phase. Interserve had just 12 weeks to reconfigure the spaces, fit a heating system serving the whole building, put in lighting and new carpets and redecorate.

“Everyone thought it was impossible,” says Dan Breen, site manager for Interserve. Breen had to contend with some major structural work too. “The school hall had two columns in the middle, which we had to remove,” he explains. “We needed to put in 14 piles and brought the piling rig in through the front door.” Demand for places meant additional money was found to turn two damp-ridden spaces below ground level into new classrooms. The building is grade II listed, which could have made a tough job impossible but as a fire destroyed the interior in the seventies, the team was free to reconfigure it how they liked.

What’s it like?
The building is prominently located right in the middle of Langley, which gives it a sense of being at the heart of the community. The classical frontage and playground in front of the building gives it an imposing presence. Sculpher is delighted with the playground, describing it as “incredibly successful” and well designed.

Children and staff enter through the grand front door of the former house into an equally grand hallway complete with wooden panelling, chandeliers and calm paint colours. “This is a really, really good space and is welcoming for the children as it feels just like a house,” enthuses Sculpher. An existing lift helps the school meets its Equality Act obligations. There is plenty of internal space, including a dedicated reception and an area for parents to sit and use PCs if they like, a generous staff room and head of school office and well proportioned, bright classrooms. There is a decent sized school hall and a dedicated dance, drama and music studio complete with sophisticated projection systems.

Caplehorn really likes the birch ply used for the changing rooms, but Sculpher is more reticent, saying she was initially concerned the children could hurt themselves on the rough surface caused by the fireproof coating on the wood.

Any downsides?

Free schools

“If there is one thing we are lacking its storage,” Sculpher says, describing the failure to incorporate storage under a raised wooden stage in the playground as a “missed opportunity”. Instead she has to make do with cheap plastic-lidded bins in the playground and a garden shed. Another garden shed has been shoehorned incongruously into a tiny lightwell.

Another issue is impact noise over Sculpher’s study. “I’ve been up the stairs a few times wondering what on earth was going on,” she says. Caplehorn loves the hallway but questions the lack of a lobby for the outside door. “This could be a problem in the winter as you will get draughts all the way up the stairs,” he says. “I predict you will end up with a lobby here.”

The toilets come in for a lot of stick, too, the toilet roll holders being Sculpher’s second big gripe of the day. “They look great but don’t work as they’re lockable,” she says. “You don’t want maintenance people to spend all day just changing the toilet rolls.” The hand dryer is on the other side of the room from the washbasins. “The children wash their hands and walk drip, drip, drip across the room to the dryer or they don’t bother drying their hands,” says Sculpher. “That’s completely crazy,” Caplehorn agrees.

The passive detection system used for controlling the lighting isn’t sensitive enough, so the lights keep going off if there isn’t constant movement in the classrooms.

The expert’s verdict
“When you approach the building it’s got a smart Georgian aspect and feels very homely with a good sense of scale. The separation between the road and school really works too and the entrance hallway gives a nice start. It is a building with character and is going to be a great seat of learning. A lot of schools feel sanitised but here the building has character and a past, which has got to be good for inspiring the kids. Buildings aren’t just there to do a service; they are there to inspire people too.

“The playground is obviously constrained and has got a lot packed into it without it seeming pressured. Sometimes you get huge ones that end up with a lot of dead space; when you are constrained like this you really have to make it work. There’s a slight problem with traffic nearby but that doesn’t seem to be an issue in the school.

“The acoustics are generally good although there are some issues with impact noise, but we must remember this is an existing building. Natural ventilation is fine in a building of this size. The PIR lighting is a good attempt at making the building more sustainable. It’s amazing what has been done in the time available - at one point they wondered if they were going to hit the completion date. They all pulled together and it opened on the day, so full marks to them.”

For more information on government policy changes and the opportunity to meet leading contractors, architects and senior educations figures, register your interest for Building Future Education, taking place on 9-10 May 2012.