Gina Davidson: Council has kids living in a box

‘AAIIIEE my eyes” was apparently the death cry of Japanse soldiers as they were done in by plucky British Tommies in the tatty war magazines I used to flick through while waiting to see the doctor. Well it was the 70s and GPs used to have those quaint morning schedules where you could just pitch up and hang around until someone was free. And they were slightly better than the People’s Friend.

But I digress. “Aaiieee my eyes” was also my reaction this week when I saw the impression (said to be by an artist but I have my doubts) of the planned extension for Trinity Primary School. An hour on the sofa with a couple of slabs of cucumber on the peepers didn’t make it any better – as it is truly hideous. If the architects were briefed to come up with their idea of a des res for one of JK Rowling’s dementors – they surpassed themselves.

Unfortunately the two-storey rectangular slab of flat-roofed grey panelling is supposed to convince young minds they’re about to enter a place of inspiration and creativity, where they will learn great things and explore wonderful ideas. Shame it looks more like they’re about to have their souls sucked through their nostrils by the dead hand of state-sponsored design.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

In fact, it’s the sort of thing you’d imagine Michael Gove drawing on a civil servant’s forehead as he explains just how he’s getting education straightened out in this country with his Fordian rational for new schools: any shape you like as long as it’s a box.

But this is Edinburgh, thankfully beyond the reach of Mr Gove’s neo-functional theories. Yet the city council also seems incapable of demanding good design, and instead is adopting the philosophy of the School of Little Boxes Made of Tickey Tackey which all Look Just the Same.

Two years ago I railed against the design of the new James Gillespie’s High as yet another soulless structure which ruined the old premises’ “campus” feel, while, ironically, claiming to reinforce it. To no avail obviously – what the council decides, it gets.

And now Trinity Primary, where not only is the education department going against Scottish Government guidelines with its permanent prefab extension by forgetting all about personalisation and innovation, but is also breaking every rule in the book of good taste and the pamphlet on giving children a nice place to turn up to.

Dear god, they’ll have a bad enough time of it as adults sitting in stainless steel, glass and breezeblock boxes answering calls from irate Sky viewers watching another little box inside their identikit new housing, so why not let them have a little joy when they’re young?

Trinity Primary looks as though it could have stood in for Grange Hill at any second, but that shouldn’t give planners carte blanche to throw up something that looks like the last piece of Lego in the tub. Kids are in schools for at least six hours every day, and it’s been proven time and again that the places where we work or live impact our health – particularly our mental health. So where better to get design right than with a school?

Of course, the reason that an extension is even being contemplated is because Trinity is full to the brim after the closure of other, nearby, primaries.

Which makes the design even more important, something to lift the kids’ spirits, even sub-consciously, as they arrive in the morning. We should not oppress them with a building ­reminiscent of a 1960s ball-­bearing production factory – minus the ­spewing chimneys, they would, after all, be circular.

These school boxes have already been ridiculed by architects, such as Deborah Saunt, an award-winning school designer, as the “architectural equivalent of feeding children McDonald’s every day”, while at the same time, a study by academics at Salford University has shown there is a strong correlation between the built environment where teaching takes place and test results in reading, ­writing and maths.

Indeed, the same study suggests that even lighting, circulation, acoustics, individuality and colour affects pupils’ progress.

So why can’t the council take such ideas on board? I can understand its desire to get school capacity problems resolved quickly and cheaply, but good design practice should not be thrown on the scrapheap in the process. Why can’t it seem to grasp that good building design can instil in children the importance of living and working in harmonious surroundings and how it can benefit lives?

Similar extensions are also planned at Victoria, Granton and Wardie ­primaries, and as one parent at the latter school and an architect to boot says, this extension is a “major missed opportunity”. He’s right, but if it gets the go-ahead it’s also another missed opportunity for the council’s new ­co-operative way of thinking.

The education department and city councillors should do well to remember that a school’s ethos can’t but be improved by it’s atmosphere, and that atmosphere is largely dependent on intelligent architecture.

However if that atmosphere is as depressed as the waiting room of my childhood GP surgery, then these children might as well be given textbooks – or indeed comics – from the same era. For who needs progress?