School buildings and politics: a very brief history, and what this tells us about RAAC

The Elementary Education Act of 1870 accepted that education of children in England and Wales, up to 13 , was the responsibility of the state. Social historians have suggested that school buildings since then have been a response to regional and national political influences, both in design and social intent (Maclure,1984; Saint,1987; Lowe, 1997; Dudek, 2000).   This article suggests that the RAAC crisis can be seen as a continuation of this response, through which political interests and theories are made concrete through the design – and physical state – of school buildings.

Historians offer a number of examples. Seaborne and Lowe (1977) suggest that the high windows of the London Board schools in the late 19th Century were designed to prevent children from seeing out, in order to shield them from the perceived harmful influence of their external social environment.  Meanwhile in Birmingham, high chimneys were introduced for the purpose of natural ventilation in a polluted city.  With the turn of the 20th century, the poor health of the soldiers returning from the Boer War led to a general concern with health (Heggie, 2001, 2011); in Staffordshire the county medical officer was instrumental in the design of single-storey, cross-ventilated schools with distinct physical divisions between classes, based on the prevention of disease spread in hospitals (Seaborne and Lowe, 1977).  Following the First World War and the need to rebuild a shattered society, Henry Morris at Cambridgeshire County Council developed the concept of the Village Colleges; the innovative design included libraries and community rooms, as an integral part of and strong catalyst for the development of community life (Jeffs, 1998).

After the Second World War and widespread bomb damage, central government started to play a more formal role in school design, with the first publication of the ‘Building Bulletins’ by the Ministry of Education.  The introduction to the first building bulletin (BB1) reads:

‘A very large school building programme is under way.  We need schools and we need them quickly, but they must be good ones:  This is the challenge which faces architects and educators to-day.’ (Ministry of Education, 1949, pg 2).

The introduction closely reflected the communal spirit of post-war British society, with a call for ‘the closest collaboration between all concerned’ (Ministry of Education, 1949, pg 44).   BB1 also described its central aim as to increase efficiency of material use and reduce costs in the impoverished country.  One design response which achieved both these aims, as we now know, was the introduction between the 1950s and 1980s of the then innovative material, reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

Beyond the physical design of schools, however, BB1 also ‘outlines recent trends in primary education and tries to describe their architectural implications’ (Ministry of Education, 1949, p.1). Cooper therefore suggests that these publications too saw a political purpose in school design, and could be seen as ‘at least in part, a bid to influence – if not actually determine – how teachers and children behave’ (Cooper, 1981, pg 133).

Moving to the turn of this century, the Labour Governments from 1997-2010 had clear aspirations for first social equity, and later sustainability, and these were both particularly conspicuous within their major school building programmes.  Over £60 billion of private and public money was earmarked for the Academies Programme from 2000, and Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) from 2003.   While undoubtedly imperfect in execution (see for example Moncaster, 2012) these programmes had strongly social aspirations. Education had been identified as the ‘number one priority’ in the UK Labour election manifestos: the building programmes were originally focused on areas of deprivation as routes to improving social and educational equity (long before the Conservative party introduced ‘levelling up’): and they also responded to the Every Child Matters initiative.

Sustainability was added in 2004 as an additional aspiration. Tony Blair, in a speech to business leaders, stated:

‘All new schools and City Academies should be models for sustainable development…  Our students won’t just be told about sustainable development, they will see and work within it: a living, learning, place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means.’ 

(Tony Blair: full text of speech reported in The Guardian online, 15 September 2004)

The new schools programmes therefore again reflected social and political aspirations, and again revealed an attempt to influence behaviour through building design, giving children a ‘place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means’.

When the Coalition Government gained power in 2010 Labour’s school building programmes were axed. Since then there has been a fiscal policy of austerity, with significant reductions in public spending, including in schools. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms in the first ten years following Labour’s defeat.

When the pandemic in 2020 revealed once again the importance of building design in preventing disease spread, it might have been supposed that this would herald a new and urgent focus for our school buildings. Instead the IFS states that ‘Capital spending on schools is low in historical terms and lower in real terms than in the mid 2000s.’  The same article points out that there is at least a 40% shortfall in funding awarded by the Treasury for even necessary maintenance.  It appears therefore that the problem with failing RAAC is just one result of years of under-investment and poor maintenance. The physical outcome of current political choices are therefore increasingly evident in our school buildings; the political views that this may reflect have not been stated in grand speeches, but can be surmised.

The earlier examples suggest that school buildings have not just reflected socio-political change, but have themselves been a deliberate instrument of that change.   Whether deliberate or not, it is yet to be seen what the long-term social change will result from our crumbling (state) schools estate; however it is hard to ignore indications that, as with the modern-day soup kitchens, it is just another signal that the UK is being returned to Victorian extremes of poverty and low education.

(Please note that some of this text is taken from Moncaster (2012))






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