At the time of the foundation of many of the UK’s oldest and most illustrious educational institutions, a room could be considered a classroom as long as it were equipped with a few hard wooden desks, the odd inkwell, an open fire and a window, if those first scholars were lucky.
Recreation time may have been spent chasing a misshapen leather ball across a lumpy field, fishing, if a river were to hand, or perhaps challenging a classmate to a game of fives by bashing a cork ball about with their fists on a brick-built court.
Undoubtedly, the idea of what constitutes a suitable learning environment has progressed rapidly over the centuries. Independent schools – particularly the oldest of them – have had to constantly adapt and upgrade their facilities to suit the requirements of a high-quality modern education.
School campuses are increasingly becoming mini villages in their own right and, alongside classroom accommodation designed for the optimum learning experiences, are conurbations of facilities that are the venues for activities spanning sports and the arts, but also spaces carefully considered to promote wellbeing, relaxation and socialisation.
Look the part
Not only do a school’s facilities have a job to do in terms of delivering the ideal environment for whatever educational activity they are designed to host, there is also great pressure on schools to ensure that their facilities look the part, too.
Sports halls, drama studios, music schools, outdoor classrooms, libraries and all the other educational venues make a lasting impression on visiting prospective families, and are likely to feature heavily when it comes to making a decision on which school to pick.
“We carry out a lot of research into non-joiners – the families who enquired at a school but did not ultimately choose it – and find that these parents are more likely to rate the facilities of one school against another, and those with poor facilities are considered to lack a ‘wow factor’,” explains James Leggett, managing director of education market research specialist MTM Consulting.
“Parents expect independent schools to offer facilities that are of a high standard – they are not just a ‘nice to have’, but integral to the educational offer. The most affluent parents are particularly keen on the quality of facilities – unsurprisingly, pupils and their parents want to be impressed by and proud of the school they choose.”
The King’s School, Gloucester was one of seven cathedral schools established by Henry VIII in 1541, but many of its school buildings are even older – including its sixth form centre which dates back to the 13th century and is protected by a Grade-II* listing.
Although packed with historic features, it was a myriad of small spaces unsuited to modern learning, so last year the school carried out a £2m redevelopment project to transform it into a 21st-century workspace for both students and the wider community to use.
“King’s Sixth Form is becoming an increasingly popular choice for students throughout Gloucestershire,” says headmaster David Morton, “but the outdated facilities didn’t match our aspirations for our pupils.
“This project represented a very exciting chapter in the school’s long history, which will also see us offering more bursaries and scholarships, and underlined our commitment to ensuring our students receive a first-class education in state-of-the-art facilities. The result is a sixth form centre which blends history with modernity and is truly like no other.”
Interestingly, funds required to transform the building were raised by an innovative sale of bonds to King’s parents. These offer the investors a 3% annual interest, with the investment to be fully repaid in seven years.
The new Dulverton House, designed by Roberts Limbrick Architects, was opened in January 2021. Sitting adjacent to Gloucester Cathedral, it has been completely transformed – beautiful period features have been restored, and bright work and social spaces have been created. It’s also been fitted out with unique artwork that blends prominent historical figures with a modern twist, to challenge the perceptions of the viewer and to encourage creativity.
The older buildings at Brighton Girls – originally established as Brighton and Hove High School in 1876 – are much-loved, but the school recognised that some had become unfit for their modern purpose. Walters & Cohen Architects have been engaged to breathe new life into the Grade-II listed Vicarage and Temple buildings, and Montpelier site, whilst retaining their unique heritage.
Work to the Vicarage includes removing modern interventions to restore classrooms and staff offices to their original height and character, but with the addition of an acoustic treatment to reduce noise build-up and create comfortable, functional teaching spaces. The prep school will move back here – its original location.
In the Temple building, the ground floor is being converted into a coffee shop-style space for everyday study and socialising, as well as presentations and events. A library/study, presentation room and makerspace will surround the main area, to be used independently or as one larger space.
Furthermore, the basement is to become a music centre, with plenty of learning space and storage areas. On the second floor will be an open-plan sixth-form study and social space. The architects held workshops with students to find out their taste in furniture, and this has informed the interior design of the spaces.
Montpelier, which houses the sixth form and senior school, will have its basement transformed into new classrooms and breakout spaces. The project, which intends to minimise the school’s carbon footprint, is due to be completed in spring 2022.
Neglected no more
However, facilities do not have to be old to require refreshing. Although many of the buildings at Myddelton College in North Wales are Grade-II listed, its equestrian centre was originally opened by HRH Princess Anne 15 years ago, but had since fallen into disrepair.
“It was something that we always wanted to re-establish at some point as there are many parents who have children who are showjumpers and riders, representing Wales and GB,” explains Myddelton College headmaster, Andrew Allman.
After a four-month £30,000 renovation project, the new equestrian centre opened in May 2021 and provides stabling for up to 10 horses and ponies, as well as two all-weather arenas and a 10-acre field with easy access to a network of bridle paths in the surrounding Vale of Clwyd countryside.
Thanks to this new facility, the school is now able also organise specialist training for riding for all levels of abilities, including taster sessions for novice riders, and offers Pony Club badges for stable management.
Although the pandemic has created a period of uncertainty over the past year or so, Myddelton College, in common with other independent schools, has managed to maintain admissions and is still keen to reinvest in its campus.
“It’s so important for independent schools to maintain and update school facilities to ensure that our students receive full benefit from the opportunities we seek to offer,” says Allman.
He continues: “Before embarking on any renovation project, it is essential to think carefully about the facility that would be good for students and to carry out market research first to ensure it will be used to its full potential. The equestrian centre was a neglected part of our school and the impact of the work we have done has been significant.”
The search for suitable spaces for teaching and learning on school campuses is one that often calls for school leaders to be creative. At Bishop’s Stortford College in Hertfordshire, the eldest students were in desperate need of a dedicated space for quiet and collaborative study, so work commenced this spring on relocating a collection of staff and department offices to make way for a brand new sixth form learning centre, the first of its kind at the school.
Over three weeks during the Easter holidays, the administrative accommodation was transformed with the help of school interior design and installation specialist Taskspace – rooms were remodelled, interiors were repainted and new furniture, flooring and equipment were installed.
The result is a unique space for sixth formers to work collectively or independently. Quiet study areas, a conference room and a well-equipped kitchenette are all designed to help prepare students for life beyond the school.
“Our sixth form learning centre is designed to mimic a modern undergraduate study space or work environment,” says Bishop’s Stortford College’s head of sixth form, Katie Banks. “It provides an opportunity for students to collaborate on assignments or to hunker down in a quiet, calm place to get on with their A-level work and independent study.”
Certainly, ensuring that school facilities remain current is essential if students are to make the most of all the opportunities an independent education has to offer, and to leave school well prepared for the next stage in their life’s journey.
Related feature: Which boarding schools have updated their accommodation?