Could money be saved by turning empty office blocks, and even old Woolworths shops, into schools?
Bristol Cathedral choir school’s principal, Neil Blundell, is striding along the corridor of the school’s newest building, the Parsonage, when he spots a pupil leaning against the wall, shirt-tails peeping out from beneath his sweater. “Would you like to tuck that shirt in?” he asks firmly, adding: “And don’t lean on that wall – it’s only been up for eight weeks.”
The wall is indeed only eight weeks old – because the Parsonage was until this year a completely open-plan building. It was, in fact, an office block. When the choir school moved from the independent sector to become an academy last year, it had to find room for an anticipated 300 more pupils. Because it sits on a cramped site littered with listed buildings – including the cathedral itself – a huge new edifice was out of the question, Blundell says.
Fortunately, there was an office block lying empty in one corner of the site. The block had been built for letting, as an investment, but no tenant had been found. In under four months – and for just £1.3m, against £25m for a new school – it was converted into a home for the computing, maths and foreign language departments.
From the outside, its pale cream knobbly concrete walls and grey slate roofs are reminders of its immediate past. Inside, the impression of still being in an office – children in uniform aside – is reinforced. Classrooms that could be meeting rooms open off white corridors; the ceilings are rather low; and there is little natural light.
The building has its problems. As an open-plan office, it was designed for workers evenly spread across each floor; the result is that the classrooms often overheat when pupils pack in for lessons. Because the building is next to a major road, the external windows don’t open, and the relatively low ceilings leave no room to install further ventilation. As he pauses to look into a classroom, Blundell is told by one teacher that her room suffers from “really, really horrible” humidity.
However, he insists, taking over an open-plan building gave the school tremendous flexibility, and ventilation problems can be sorted out, just as the school dealt with the lack of light in classrooms – which have few windows – by painting everything in pale colours.
Blundell claims to have had only positive comments from parents. As for the pupils, they seem happy enough. “It’s very smart, more modern,” says Sam, a pupil in year 10, who seems far more interested in the new computers than the decor. “It doesn’t feel like an office block now,” he adds.
Although a new building “is always going to be better”, Blundell says, “for this school, it was the right thing to do. I’m delighted with it. I don’t think we could have got a better solution.”
It’s an idea that could become widespread. The Conservatives have already made it clear that, should they win power next year, schools will have to do more with less, swapping new buildings for converting old offices, church halls and municipal buildings.
Experts think it can be done: refurbishment and remodelling “already play a major part” in school building programmes, says Ty Goddard, the head of the British Council for School Environments. In future, “imagination and wise thinking” will be needed to make the most of what’s there already, he adds.
In the US, schools are created from offices, supermarkets and, in a distinctively American touch, shopping malls. The Tories also point to Sweden, where the much-hyped free schools movement relies on companies starting up schools without any capital grants. Looking for cheap options, they will convert old military barracks, factories and even, in one case, a former observatory.
Steve Bolingbroke heads the UK operations of the company Kunskapsskolan, which runs over 30 Swedish schools in converted buildings. A year ago, he identified several sites in the south east of the UK as ripe for conversion – among them, somewhat staggeringly, London’s BT Tower, previously known as the Post Office Tower.
Kunskapsskolan’s interest was rebuffed, so it won’t happen. But, Bolingbroke insists: “A school on top of the Post Office Tower would be a great place for kids to understand the geography of London. How great [that would be] – having a lesson about the geography of London while actually looking at it.”
Others have equally ambitious schemes. Professor Stephen Heppell, of Bournemouth University, is working with Rotherham council on plans to turn the town’s disused shops into schools. This would help to regenerate run-down high streets, and could be incredibly cheap, Heppell argues. He claims businesses will lease empty buildings for nothing as long as they are maintained – because that allows them to count the shops as assets on their balance sheet, and then borrow against those assets.
Under Heppell’s plan, which the council has agreed to explore, an old Woolworths store would, for example, “make a very fine Da Vinci studio – you know, science and art [together]”.
“If there’s a change of government, and [school building] gets squeezed, this is a really interesting route for creating learning environments that are exciting – and that are value for money,” he says.
Not everyone is convinced that the conversion model works. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, has visited Swedish schools. “How companies make a profit is by taking over ex-public buildings, or indeed private buildings, and furnishing them to the minimum standard,” he says. “It didn’t look particularly good. It didn’t seem appropriate.”
Peter Clegg, of schools architects Feilden Clegg Bradley, says he isn’t against the idea in principle, but he doubts it will work. Britain’s archaic planning system makes changing the use of any building slow and complicated, he argues. For that reason, the Conservatives are already plotting changes to planning regulations “to make it easier to set up schools”, a spokesman says.
But there may not be enough good-quality buildings – with high ceilings and excellent day-lighting and ventilation – available for conversion, Clegg says. “If we’re looking at taking over crap buildings and turning them into schools, it isn’t going to look very good.”
Another problem with converting office blocks lies in providing playgrounds and sports fields. “Children need space outside,” says Bangs. “You need playgrounds, you need areas you can convert to sustainable activities, like farms.”
But in Sweden, Bolingbroke says, Kunskapsskolan hires out local council sports halls or uses other schools’ facilities. Meanwhile, architects say schools could build playgrounds on the rooftops of converted offices. Although the combination of teenage children, sports equipment and a multi-storey drop may seem faintly alarming, in practice it already exists.
St Mary Magdalene academy, in north London, has a playground on its roof; as will St George’s school, in Westminster, when it is finished next year. Its playground will be surrounded by a three-metre-high parapet wall and covered by a net to stop balls bouncing over. “You create quite a secure environment,” says John Wood of construction firm Bouygues, which is working on the project.
Some parents may hate the idea of converted buildings, he admits. “Parents like to be reassured with gleaming new schools and state-of-the-art facilities.” But, he adds: “All it takes is a few architects to create wonderful converted buildings. Then parents won’t mind whether the kids are in an old office, factory or warehouse.”
First published in The Guardian