History of school buildings in Wales

Traditionally the school was the centre of a community together with the post office, shop and public house.  These amenities are key to the historical development of a town or village and can help to form a sense of belonging. Primary schools have a different feel to secondary schools. Primary schools are very much part of a small community and through involving stakeholders and community groups can be the focal point of a village. Secondary schools are more complex but have the opportunity to strengthen community cohesion.

Population changes, including number and location, the economy, legislation, building condition and teaching practice have all contributed to the nature and quantity of the school built environment over time.

Seaborne (1992) states that ‘a detailed examination of the earliest purpose built schools in Wales shows that they were an accurate reflection of contemporary developments, both in education and architecture, and provide insights not available from other sources’. It can be argued that this progression can be seen throughout the process of school construction and retrofit with schools often used for implementing new construction and technological ideas.

History of school buildings in Wales
In 1880 there was, on average, only one grammar school place per thousand of the school population in Wales (Seaborne, 1992). Before this many schools were single room school houses run by charities or the church, with all pupils taught in one space. Larger schools had a central hall or corridor with classrooms separated from it by partitions. Ystradmeurig grammer school, Cardiganshire, 1812 (Seaborne, 1992) is an example of a single room school with a library and sleeping room.

Ystradmeurig grammer school, Cardiganshire, 1812 (Seaborne, 1992)
Ystradmeurig grammer school, Cardiganshire, 1812 (Seaborne, 1992)
Ystradmeurig grammer school, Cardiganshire, 1812 (Seaborne, 1992)

1870           The 1870 Education Act led to a large building programme of elementary schools which saw the introduction of separate classrooms from a central hall with classrooms opening off.  This format suited the need for the headteacher to supervise teaching in different spaces, due to a lack of qualified teaching staff and an increase in pupil numbers (Seaborne and Lowe 1977).

1920/30s     A reducing birth rate and a poor economic situation resulted in a lack of investment in the education sector.

1936           The 1936 Education Act saw an increase in funding made available.

1944           The 1944 Education Act was released in response to war damage and lack of maintenance during World War 2, an increased birth rate, the requirement to raise school age to 15 and to provide proper secondary education. Up until this period stone wall construction was used. Schools were often located on small sites particularly within dense built up areas which allowed for little room for expansion.

1950/60s     Significant investment in British school building due to an increasing birth rate following World War 2. Primary schools construction peaked during the early 1950s and late 1960s, this was tracked by secondary school construction peaks in the mid 1950s and early 1970s (Gordon et al, 1991).

Schools built during the 1950s tended to be of a simple brick and block style. During this period nearly 2 million school places were provided in the UK to educate additional pupils as a result of the post war baby boom, the raised school leaving age and the increase in number of pupils staying on in the sixth form (Maclure, 1984).

1957           The CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) was established in 1957, following on from the Ministry of Educations commitment to promote construction systems and work with companies from the private sector to  market these. It was assumed that few Local Authorities would have large enough programmes or large enough architect departments to develop their own systems.  Groups of authorities were encouraged to combine resources in voluntary consortia to achieve the benefits of prefabrication and rationalised building. Each consortium included core and associated members. Mid Glamorgan and West Glamorgan County Councils were full members of CLASP, South Glamorgan CC was an associate members.

Brick and block school in Tregaron.
Brick and block school in Tregaron.

During the 1960s school buildings were open plan in design particularly in primary schools and prefabricated materials using standardised components were common. The use of standardised components enabled a faster and cheaper construction phase to fit with demand for places, materials and available labour skills.

Consortia building reached its peak of 52% in 1970-1971 but began to fall during the mid 1970s.

Prefabricated school in Wales
Prefabricated school in Wales

1972 Last rural all age school closed.

1977 Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office wrote 'after 30 years of growth the school population will now be falling steeply for at least a decade'. This was a result of the population boom during the 1950s and 1960s.

Late 1970/80s Very little investment in school building beyond maintenance budgets due to a period of constraint on public expenditure and the declining population of school age.

1998 Following devolution the new Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) continued to adopt school policies formulated by the UK government.

2003 WAG set a target for all schools in Wales to be 'fit for purpose' by 2010 and committed significant investment in an attempt to achieve this.

2006 Government of Wales Act 2006 which allows WAG more powers in initiating primary legislation.

2010 Launch of '21st Century Schools Programme' in Wales.

A cyclical pattern of investment in schools has emerged high investment is followed by periods of stability and then a situation of inadequate school stock. High levels of investment have traditionally been driven by necessity such as a significant population increase or damage to schools during war.

WLGA - CLILC Llywodraeth Cynulliad Cymru / Welsh Assembly Government