New Boroughmuir High School

So what are we to make of the designs for the new Boroughmuir High School asks Gavin Corbett

There are 5 high schools attended by young people in the area I represent: Tynecastle and Firrhill schools, mainly, but also St Thomas’ and St Augustine’s.  All have new or substantially refurbished school buildings.  Boroughmuir High School is the last remaining school in an older or unimproved building.

Last year, the school, currently located in Viewforth in Edinburgh, was given the accolade of best high school in Scotland by the Sunday Times newspaper.  The current school building, however, is deemed to have outlived its 100 years and so, assuming planning permission later in 2013 or into 2014, it should open on a new Fountainbridge site in 2016.

Like almost everyone I’m keen for the school building to be the best it can be. So I started by asking the most important people their views on the new school – that is, some of the young people in my neighbourhood who go to Boroughmuir HS.  And a summary of their views might be “It’s alright”. That might be no more than the studied world-weary tone beloved of 12 and 13 year-olds, but it is worth bearing in mind.

I’ve followed the evolving plans closely since being elected as local councillor, just over a year ago, both from the point of view of wanting the best school possible and as a key building in the wider planning for Fountainbridge.  I’ve attended three different briefing sessions since the draft designs were unveiled in May this year, and had follow-up conversations.  Every day I pass the office of Allan Murray architects in Harrison Gardens and see the building model in the window.

Let’s acknowledge that the new school site is one of compromise.  The strip of land between the canal and Fountainbridge is a tiny one for a school of almost 1200 pupils, so tiny in fact, that special permission had to be sought from the Scottish Government to breach guidelines for a site of a school of that size.  However, after more than a decade of searching for a new location, the school community has been understandably pragmatic in backing the Fountainbridge site, with all its constraints and councillors adopted the same spirit when approving the overall plans in June 2012.

And constraints can also be opportunities.  A site like this should be able to deliver a tight-knit building which re-inforces the sense of school community.  The inner-urban location should make it easy to travel to and from and create a rich local environment for local learning. The new school could be iconic in a wider site which currently features student flats next door, which seem to be built from an inferior brand of lego, through to the half-empty facade of Springside and the hubristic and equally half-empty heights of Fountain Quay.

From what I have seen so far of the new school design, there is good news.  It does seem to acknowledge the canalside setting, although perhaps as no more than a backdrop rather than anything more functional (and I still hold a hope that a dual-use space for Forth Canoe Club can be accommodated within the school environment). The central atrium is well-conceived and could be the beating heart of the school, as long as it is large enough to function that way.  The headteacher’s mark is strongly represented in ensuring the bread and butter work of the school continues to take place in recognisable classrooms, even if what happens within those classrooms will continue to evolve in the decades ahead.  Provision for PE is much better than at the existing school.

But, as is fitting for this stage of the process, there are plenty of questions too.  In the sessions I have attended parents have consistently raised queries about the school boundary on the canal side and striking the right balance between the school as an accessible and community-used school and making a clear distinction where the school area begins for day-time purposes.  Access across the canal and up and down Viewforth also still needs to be sorted out and it adds yet further weight to opening up a new access to the canal from Yeaman Place bridge.

At this stage the building looks light and open from the inside but rather less attractive externally.  One observer described it to me as like a multi-storey car-park with glass.  From the Dundee Street and Viewforth sides especially it does seem rather monolithic with an awful lot of reliance on artificial lighting to create interest (which feels to me a bit like wishful-thinking).  Given the aspiration to strike a new tone for Fountainbridge as a whole, I am confident we could do better.

One of the parents at the presentations asked if the area opposite in Viewforth could be grassed in the short term to provide outdoor space until such time as the rest of the masterplan is built out.  I think that is worthy of further investigation.  My fellow ward councillor, Andrew Burns, has expressed some worry about the school spilling out at lunch time, over to Fountainpark.  The City Council needs to dramatically improve its school lunch offering across the board and to have enough space and the right atmosphere to make pupils want to stay in school.

And what of the environmental performance of the building?  This is one of the vast majority of buildings which will still be in use in 2050 when Scotland’s world-beating climate targets fall to be fulfilled.  We need to be building with 2050 in mind, not just what the latest building regulations require us to do.  At a couple of the briefing sessions I’ve asked “if the school was a fridge would it be rated A++?” The short answer is no.  It looks like it will be very good, but people won’t be citing it as an exemplar in the way that a new high school in Dunfermline has recently been cited.  That may be a missed opportunity. There’s solar PV on the roof, high standards of insulation and the capacity to plug into a Fountainbridge-wide district heating system, but it is also a school built of glass and concrete, heated using gas (albeit partly drawing on a combined heat and power system) and mostly powered by electricity from the grid.  It is not yet at the cutting edge of innovation.  Some of the constraints are simply a reflection of the site with only modest roof space for solar and neighbourhood noise limiting the scope for natural ventilation.

Last week I hosted a round table event on the potential of district heating in Fountainbridge. The school could be a vital part of the jigsaw, not just because it complements the heat-load with other uses, but also because it could act as an anchor point for an energy centre for the whole site – an eco-school brought to life!

Equally,on wider impacts.  Apart from mandatory spaces for disabled users, there will be no parking at the school.  The trick now is to avoid car-parking pressures simply being displaced into surrounding streets by developing such a good travel plan for the school that everyone (staff and pupils) comes to school by active means (walking, cycling or, as one parent suggested, canoeing) or by public transport.

So, overall, from me, a report card of C so far (and I know that it is old-fashioned but Curriculum for Excellence criteria would be too complicated to explain for now).  It’s a pass but, to go back to that Sunday Times accolade, Boroughmuir is not a school which usually settles for C.  And these are just the pre-lims – there is still time for a bit more work before the exam itself.

The deadline for comments is 12 July.