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English Heritage issues SOS - save old schools

Conservation watchdog says more historic schools should be refurbished, not demolished

Britain's unprecedented rush to build schools is condemned today as a threat to hundreds of sound and thoughtfully designed buildings from an era when materials were high-quality but cheap.

MPs intend to grill the government's Partnership for Schools team about the ratio of rebuilding in the £20bn programme, which is supposed to see half the money go on restoring historic and often locally popular schools.

Instead, a survey by Building Design magazine has found that 70% of completed projects have been new-build, with timescales under the private finance initiative and similar schemes pushing local councils that way. The government's conservation watchdog English Heritage is up in arms and the culture department is expected to list more schools to shore up their protection.

The alarm is based on "quick-fix" bids from town halls to get public money, which overlook the value of pioneering work by councillors' predecessors.

Two new publications by English Heritage describe the progressive thinking and enlightened architecture which went into school building from the late 19th century onwards. The group has taken the unusual step of backing them with an opinion survey, which finds that 83% of people want old school buildings retained for new use. Almost half - 47% - say that historic schools are more inspiring for pupils and teachers than new ones, and 75% value Victorian and early to mid-20th century examples as local landmarks.

The issue is raising the temperature in local government, with Leeds' ruling coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives defending a ward next month where passions are high over the closure and subsequent neglect of Victorian Royal Park school. Nationally, the Conservatives are suggesting links between the new-build bias and overspending and delays in the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Lady Andrews, chair of English Heritage, called the huge school investment programme "unique in scale and vital" but warned: "Local education authorities need to strike the best balance between replacement and refurbishment.

"The latter is often the more environmentally sensitive and effective solution. It uses the assets of the community, minimise requirements for new materials and cut demolition waste. It also helps to reinforce people's sense of belonging and local identity." Tim Byles, the chief executive of Partnership for Schools, the agency responsible for delivering the huge programme, is to be questioned about the new-build imbalance by the Commons' select committee on children, schools and families. He denied that refurbishment was "the poor relation of new-build. We are passionate about making best use of existing buildings and sustainable refurbishment projects." He recommitted the programme to achieving a 50-50 balance on completion. Elain Harwood, English Heritage's architectural historian, said: "We have some wonderful school buildings in this country, many with beautiful architecture and valuable social history. Demolition should be a last resort, and is a loss for us all."

The guidance document highlights successes in the building programme's minority of restoration schemes, such as High Storrs art-deco secondary school in Sheffield. The city council included the original 1930s buildings in the modernised school which has 21st century IT networks and better accessibility for the disabled. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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