Education Apr 28 2011

Review into school building suggests buildings not ‘transformational’. So why do they care so much about them at Eton?

It has been fascinating to see, in the comments following the publication of the James Review into school capital funding, how many people believe that school buildings can’t have a transformational effect on children or impact on educational attainment.

I wonder why it is then that the parents at schools like Eton, alma mater of Sebastian James and the Prime Minister, place such importance on buildings and facilities and don’t settle for flat pack IKEA style environments for their offspring.

Here is the relevant section, about the school environment, from the Eton College website:

“Committed teaching and non-teaching staff are the chief asset in guaranteeing the quality of education that Eton provides. The physical environment in which they operate is important too, both in attracting and retaining them and in making it possible for boys to be taught in pleasant and well-equipped spaces. We have a well-planned development programme which ensures that buildings are periodically modernized, and new ones provided where necessary. Within the buildings themselves, the provision of the right equipment and the appropriate use of computer-technology are seen as high priorities. The clear objectives are to allow us at all times to deploy best practice in our teaching and to provide for appropriate out-of-school use by boys”.

Then we might look at a few specific subject areas. Take Music as an example.

“In recent years a very generous building programme has doubled the size and scope of the Music Schools. The new building consists of a purpose-built orchestral rehearsal room, recording studio, computer room with twelve PC workstations, a pre/post-production suite, rock band studio, electric guitar teaching room, and twelve other teaching and practice rooms. The old Music School has been rebuilt. It now consists of three floors of teaching, rehearsal and practice rooms, together with a 250-seater Concert Hall, academic teaching rooms, a library and an organ room.”

Then there are the opportunities for Drama and Technical Theatre:

“The Farrer Theatre seats 400 people in a flexible auditorium. Its equipment includes a flying system, orchestra pit, and revolving stage. Backstage there is a scenic workshop, a well-stocked wardrobe, a make-up studio, and spacious dressing rooms. There is a large stock of lights, a computerised board, a sound system, and a range of audio-visual equipment, all of professional standard. The Caccia Studio offers a flexible, fully equipped alternative theatre space seating 100. Other venues are frequently turned into temporary theatre spaces.”

And don t forget Games

“There is a vast range of sports available, from the familiar, like soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket, rowing, athletics, squash, to the less familiar like rackets and fives. There are some games which can only be played at Eton, namely the Wall and Field Games. In all there are nearly 30 different games on offer, all coached by Eton masters and professional coaches”.

And Art!

“The Drawing Schools have facilities for painting, drawing, printmaking, computer graphics and digital photography. There are also two purpose-built 3D studios that have facilities for ceramics and sculpture in wood, metal and plaster. There are opportunities for art within the timetable, however, boys are also encouraged to use the studios in their free time and the Drawing Schools are open at weekends. The department is very well equipped and the departmental staff are there to facilitate projects that are ambitious, individualistic and technically exciting. The Drawing Schools stage regular exhibitions and there is a library that also serves as a lecture room.”

Safe to say then that the parents, staff and pupils at Eton College think that buildings and outstanding facilities do matter. But the school’s alumni, now safely ensconced running the country, don’t appear to feel the rest of the nation’s children should be entitled to the same lavish experiences they had.

And as it happens the only school in my local authority area to have been re-built in the last ten years is Haverstock, known as the “Eton of North London” due to the fact that both Miliband brothers and various other prominent figures attended the school in the 1970s and 80s.

In reality it is a far cry from Eton. Even with its new PFI building it is nothing like this, and it has numbers of pupils on FSM and with SEN that are way above the national average ( the pupil teacher ratio at Eton is 8:1 whereas it is about 20:1 on average in the state sector). However Haverstock has improved rapidly in recent years under the leadership of a strong and committed head. He, the parents and students, all speak about how the new buildings, and in particular the sports facilities (although not a patch on Eton College’s) have been transformational enough to attract back many local families and to give the students a sense of pride in their school and themselves.

Building Schools for the Future, however poorly executed, was an attempt to re-dress the balance and give the poorest children in society a chance to experience something approaching the privileges that the wealthiest can enjoy and will happily pay for because they know that access to good teaching AND outstanding facilities can AND will transform their children’s lives.

First published on the Local Schools Network

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