The Design Museum recently awarded Hilary Cottam the £25,000 Designer of the Year award, in part for the redevelopment of Kingsdale School in south London. But why, when she didn’t design it? (1)
There was always something phoney about the excitement around the redevelopment of Kingsdale Comprehensive School. Maybe it was because I could not recognise the picture of a disaster-prone school painted by the architect Alex De Rijke, when he said that Kingsdale was a ‘mistake born of a socialist dream’, adding that ‘it is a black school in a white community and a poor school in a rich community’. PG Wodehouse spent the happiest days of his life in the elite Dulwich College just over the wall, but my days at Kingsdale in the 1970s were pretty pleasant, too.
It was 15 per cent black when I went there, and it is around 50 per cent black today, but that in itself is no reason for failure. True, the relocation of children from William Penn (or ‘Billy Biro’, which once decamped en masse to march on Kingsdale for a bundle), as well as other closing schools, did make Kingsdale something of a sink school. But exaggerating the problems was part of talking up recent reforms.
Covering the redevelopment last year I was aware that the Design Council’s Hilary Cottam had something to do with the project (2). But then, there were so many people claiming responsibility it was easy to get them confused. Waiting outside the head’s office, 20 years on from the last time, it was clear that Kingsdale’s headmasters are all touched with megalomania. In 1973, Mr Rees was ensconced in his office addressing the school through a tannoy system (this was eventually seized by rebellious school leavers, who played reggae music over it). Today, Steve Morrison has a promotional video on a tape loop for his visitors. Morrison has used the redevelopment to galvanise the school, like Napoleon uses the building of the Windmill in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (you see, I did learn something at Kingsdale).
Eager to demonstrate that it was doing something about education, the government put £12million into the rebuild. Even the policy wonks at Demos had input, though their suggestion that children were being dragooned by the school bell only revealed that they had never spent long enough in the school to hear the tannoyed electronic pips that demarcate lessons.