First look at free school on seven floors

Parkfield School will stay in this office block for two years at least
Parkfield School in Bournemouth is spread over seven floors Photo: ITV Meridian

Parkfield School in Bournemouth is a brand new free school for 4 to 16 year olds that's housed in a former office block. For two years pupils will attend the school that's spread over seven floors. Christine Alsford takes a first look at how it works - and finds out what other kinds of buildings are being used as schools to help solve a crisis in places. She spoke to pupils at Parkfield, the Principal Terry Conaghan, Jerry Glazier from the National Union of Teachers and Cllr Sue Shanks from Brighton and Hove Council (Green party). Christine's blog on school buildings appears below.

Would you want your child to go to school in a seven storey office block?

Probably not. But is that because it's a bad idea - or just because we're used to something different?

There's no doubt that Parkfield School in Bournemouth - like many other additions to the government's flagship free school stable - hasn't had the easiest of starts when it comes to finding a home.

It was supposed to open last September but had to delay when it couldn't find a suitable site. A year on, it was late in opening in its temporary two year home because that wasn't ready. So while builders carried on converting the tatty, disused office block that used to house the council's social services, pupils started term at an activity centre across town instead.

But now, the school is up and running. And up really is the right word. The all through school for four to 16 year olds is spread over seven floors. The youngest pupils are on the lower levels, the secondary pupils at the top. Sandwiched in between is a gym, school hall and dining room. Getting to the library or the science labs means climbing over 100 steps - and pupils aren't allowed to use the lifts.

Breaks are staggered because the playground that used to be a car park is pretty small - and the age spread of the pupils is pretty big (at the moment age 4 to age 14 because there is no Year 10 or 11 this year). There are no playing field or sports pitches on site, and no climbing frames either as yet.

Drop off and pick up is a bit of a nightmare for a school which is right in the town centre in the middle of the business district on a busy main road.

But does any of this really matter? The head, Terry Conaghan, says parents are keen to take advantage of what the school is offering and are much more interested in the type of education than the type of building.

As a free school it's offering smaller than standard class sizes and an alternative curriculum. It's teaching the younger children using Montessori methods - and older children will study a challenging alternative to GCSEs called the International Baccalaureate.

Apparently, the high rise model of education is seen quite commonly across Europe and beyond - and no-one bats an eyelid about it there. So at a time when we have rising demand for school places in inner cities doesn't it make a lot of sense?

The National Union of Teachers says not - they want 21st century buildings that are fit for purpose and say children's education will suffer if the environment is not up to scratch. Opponents cry foul and point to single story campus-like schools in green field settings with fitness trails and football pitches.

Is Parkfield's new home ideal? Definitely not. But do the children seem happy? Undoubtedly yes. Do staff seem enthusiastic? Without question. Are the parents supportive? You bet.

Oh, and are the views good from lessons? Stunning. You can even see the sea.

Ultimately, the school will be judged by what it achieves rather than what it looks like. Never judge a book by its cover and all that.

When I asked the pupils what they thought of their building there were plenty of honest comments.

"It wasn't all that I expected at first but I've gotten used to the stairs now." said Year 8 pupil Antonia Consolos. "I really like it here and I've made quite a few new friends." "I wouldn't say it's bad on the outside....let's just say it's better on the inside," said Ollie Iles in Year 7.

And if better on the inside means kids are getting a good quality education, will the state of the bricks and mortar really count for a hill of beans in the end?

Christine Alsford
Christine Alsford, Social Affairs Correspondent Credit: ITV Meridian
Principal Terry Conaghan
Principal Terry Conaghan says teaching in high rise buildings could be the way forward as demand for places in the inner city soars
Singing assembly at Parkfield School
Parkfield School pupils enjoy singing assembly Credit: ITV Meridian

"I wouldn't say it's bad on the outside....let's just say it's better on the inside,"

– Ollie Iles in Year 7