If great school buildings and facilities don't matter, why don't the parents at Eton put up with flat packs?

Fiona Millar's picture
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.

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Ian Taylor's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 13:11

http://bit.ly/eokrhu How about the Eton rowing facilities. Apparently the river Thames was a bit too rough for the students so Eton spent £20 million on a private rowing lake at Dorney Lake. The lake did not exist but they dug out 4 million tonnes of gravel to make it. I suppose we should be grateful that Eton will allow the country to use it for the 2012 olympic games. Other people might view this type of excess as obscene when we have children working in classrooms with mould growing on the walls.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 15:55

"Building Schools for the Future, however poorly executed, was an attempt to re-dress the balance"

Presumably you'll accept, as that sentence implies, that it was poorly executed? The previous government spent a lot of money on school building, a lot of it raised via PFI (ie "off-balance sheet") and didn't get anything remotely approximating value for money. Some of it was domination by producer interests (there is absolutely no reason why every school needs to be designed from scratch, and at every point in the past when there has been extensive school building it's been done in fairly stereotyped styles), some of it an obsession with pervasive fashion (it doesn't take a genius to realise that open-plan buildings aren't going to work) and some of it all-around muddled thinking (the Christ the King saga in Liverpool, for example). The problem with that sort of policy is that it allows politicians to point to "success" without actually having to bother waiting for success: you just spend money (or in the case of PFI commit future governments to spend money) and assume that you've won.

By the way, sneering at Eton for being rich and in nice buildings is a little cheap for a Labour supporter: Fettes is hardly a slum, nor is Nottingham High School.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 16:32

The RIBA President has hit out against “flat-pack schools”. She reminded Mr Gove that the Housing Minister recently condemned identikit housing estates and hoped that Mr Gove would not apply the “pattern-book mass housing delivery model” to school buildings. She concluded: ‘We urge the Government to recognise the complexities in delivering the best new school buildings possible and to reject the over-simplistic approach recommended by the James review."


Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 17:25

Well said Fiona. These choice quotes from the Eton prospectus really highlight the huge inequalities that blight our school system -- and our society. And yes, BSF did try to address it. My son's secondary school was the lucky beneficiary of it before it was axed, and it now looks like a fabulous school. This is a school that has over 50% of children on Free School Meals whereas Eton has 0%!

Happi's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 19:07

Francis, it "looks like a fabulous school" - is it?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 07:45

BSF completely rebuilt and transformed a run-down school in Islington, the neighbouring borough from where I live. Now, it is a strikingly attractive building, with lots of natural light, bright and spacious corridors and classrooms. Given new premises and facilities in keeping with the demands of a 21st Century education, students now respond well to their new surroundings. It’s GCSE results standards have improved too – the latest Ofsted report said the school was “outstanding”. BSF has contributed immensely to turning the schools around and the staff, children and local community have huge pride in the school and is now a first choice school for many people in the borough. The new development was shortlisted for an award recognising its environmentally sustainable credentials.

The school remains a community school and the re-build has created a lasting and secure relationship between the school and the community. It is now also a valued local community resource, providing facilities for adult education, community sports, community drama groups, multi-faith religious groups, language support and access to IT. Not only has the school improved in every area of its mission to its students, it has been central in welcoming and binding the community around it. Social cohesion at it’s very best.

BSF meant that maintained schools could transform their learning environment and its culture so that schools could completely focus on prioritising high quality leaning opportunities for everyone in their community. A dilapidated school reinforces a sense of hopelessness but a lovely learning environment gives children a sense of aspiration and hope. Now that is has gone and funds prioritised elsewhere, I am still wondering how the government’s education policy is supposed to looking after the needs of all children, particularly the most disadvantaged.

tokyo nambu's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 09:35

"She reminded Mr Gove that the Housing Minister recently condemned identikit housing estates and hoped that Mr Gove would not apply the “pattern-book mass housing delivery model” to school buildings. "

Way to miss the point, as our American cousins would say. If I'm stood on a housing estate, and all the houses look the same, that might be said to be a bad thing (although the success of the Bournville Village Trust, Port Sunlight and other "model villages" tends to say it's a lot more complex than that). But if I'm stood in Manchester, and it turns out there's an identical school been built in Birmingham, so what? Is there some existential angst that will creep into people in Manchester when shown a picture of an identical school in Birmingham? Are the needs of schools in Birmingham somehow intrinsically different to those in Manchester? And if so, what else needs to be customised to prevent the scandal of mass-production: minibuses? Desks? Protractors?

What's the alleged problem, other than the RIBA president wanting more work for RIBA members?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 14:34

The RIBA president was condemning a "one-plan-suits-all" approach. A school needs to be "fit-for-purpose" and what might be appropriate on one site may not work somewhere else if only because the number and age of the children are different. It is, as tokyo says, "a lot more complex than that". Port Sunlight is a model village but it doesn't look like Bourneville. It took vision to make them unique.

And as for "more work for RIBA members" - even "flat-pack" schools require architects in the same way as they need construction workers.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 15:22

The fact that parents of Etonians believe something to be true doesn't make it so. Is this chippy little piece really the best you can do by way of a defence of BSF Fiona?

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 15:47

Francis and Allan,

How much did the schools you refer to cost?

paul rivers's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 15:59

Another point made by the James report was that funds were allocated under BSF on the basis of area of deprivation rather than the condition of the school-hence the number of schools still requiring urgent attention despite all the money spent/wasted. Moreover about a 1/3 of the schools built were poor in design due to the process.
Fiona and colleagues not only do your defences of BSF seem shallow but no one seems to be listening to you on the issue of academies and free schools.The number of followers for this web site is about the same as the number of parents hoping to get their kids into a new free school. You have so clearly lost the argument !

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 20/04/2011 - 09:04

On the contrary, I think we are proving that there are as many , if not more, parents who want to support their existing schools rather than set up new ones that may not be as successful and may also drain resources from existing provision.

George H's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 17:29

Toby Young -

At least Fiona Millar defends and uses evidence to back up her argument. You are you supporters just bully, shout and intimidate, like you did with the attack on LBGT at the schools, like you do all the time. You do not give answers as to how your plans will definitely ensure free schools will succeed - they have not been the success that they were trumpeted to be and only private businesses seem to be doing well.

Finally - who is telling the untruth? You or LOS. A month after the school wrote to parents so say that, following parents' objections, the school would NOT have a partnership with you, you gave an interview in the Guardian and blogged that there was a partnership. Either you are being dishonest or the head of LOS is hiding things from the parents.

George H's picture
Tue, 19/04/2011 - 17:38

I meant to say free schools not doing as well as they are supposed to be in the US. I don't have anything against free schools per se but I think people take advantage of the system (and the government encourages them to) and turn these schools into a model of their own, narrow and inexperienced way of thinking. This already excludes a lot of people. It is all wrapped up about "caring" for poor children but in reality it is people like Toby Young, who use it further their own career.

Since when has Toby Young had integrity? His beliefs change like the wind. He claims a belief when it suits him. All you have to do is google him and read of his past and the things he has said and done. And the way he speaks and writes now, so openly rude and antagonistic. What sort of example is that to children? This is not the kind of man you want leading a school.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/04/2011 - 07:13

In the 1920s the Cambridgeshire County Education Secretary Henry Morris recognised the importance of good design for schools. Much of his patch was rural so he described these new buildings as village colleges. He believed that buildings, the landscape and public works of art were “powerful educators”.
“The design, decoration and equipment of our places of education cannot be regarded as anything less than of first-rate importance - as equally important, indeed, as the teacher. There is no order of precedence - competent teachers and beautiful buildings are of equal importance and equally indispensable ... Buildings that are well-designed and equipped and beautifully decorated will exercise their potent, but unspoken, influence on those who use them from day to day. This is true education. The school, the technical college, the community centre, which is not a work of architectural art is to that extent an educational failure. (quoted in Jeffs 1999: 58)”


Compare the above, written over 80 years ago, with Mr Gove’s utilitarian vision. He favours pre-fabs over “architectural art”. We have a Philistine as a Secretary of State for Education.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 20:04

Agreed, Fiona. It makes sense to invest in the existing stock in order to modernise and expand ; there is so much potential ( not on all sites though but on most) to do this. Therefore you can hit two goals of having new and updated provision as well as extended provision. This is surely the most economical and sustainable way forward.

It is also very difficult to have a one size fits all model when you are catering for different needs and probably different FE streams. Site constraints matter as well.#

I also worked in housing development for many years where standardisation was once promoted as the most cost effective way forward; it soon transpired that this was not practical on anything but flat greenfield sites. Much the same applies to school estates!

Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 16/03/2016 - 14:50

Testing the new comments facility

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