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Historic School Buildings

The advice on this page is intended to help local authorities, school staff, architects, project teams and others involved in schemes to update and remodel historic school buildings.

Elm Court School in Brixton, London
Elm Court School in Brixton, London © Clive Sherlock Photography

Historic school buildings

There are over 5,000 listed school buildings in England, a significant part of our historic environment. Historic England believes that in many cases these can be successfully refurbished to accommodate new uses, equipment and modern teaching methods, rather than being lost to educational use altogether. 

This approach means that the inspiring surroundings offered by historic school buildings are not denied to future generations of students.

While there can sometimes be challenges, refurbishing historic school buildings can be less disruptive and more cost- and time-effective in comparison with the alternatives, and can reuse finite resources in the interests of sustainability and value for money.

Successful projects

You can see examples of successful projects.

You can find detailed and practical advice on how to carry out a successful school refurbishment project.

This approach is founded on a number of key principles:

Planning policy

  • The National Planning Policy Framework recognises that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource, and that local planning authorities should conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance.

Total understanding as the baseline

  • Early assessment of the school building will allow key design aspects to be identified so that they can be ‘ring-fenced’ early in the process, to ensure they are retained and refurbished as part of the scheme.

Constructive conservation as the guiding approach

Dealing with historic buildings will only be one part of a complex process of planning change.  Flexibility in negotiating proposals on the part of all involved can lead to better and more sustainable outcomes.

Continuity of project and design teams throughout the process will support consistent decision making and project planning, particularly in design & build projects.  Where this is not possible, the resultant brief for new project and design teams needs to be extremely clear to enable successful delivery.

Allow for the future. For many historic schools, this will not be the first refurbishment project carried out on the buildings. Indeed, poorly thought-through, incremental change in past years may already have eroded and damaged the building’s special interest and character.  It is sensible when dealing with historic school buildings to plan changes that can be reversed.

What works successfully now? Historic school buildings often include design choices that work without the provision of additional technology, for instance providing higher levels of insulation and airtightness, well-engineered openable windows, high thermal mass and good daylight strategies. Early identification and retention of these elements can reduce complexity and cost in the refurbishment process.

An integrated approach

  • It is important that decisions on the future of historic school buildings are not taken in isolation. Local authority staff dealing with capital programmes should seek the input of heritage specialists in their local authority at the earliest possible stage to ensure that these issues are factored into the process.
  • Where there is a two-tier local government structure, the county council with responsibility for education will benefit from early engagement with conservation departments in the district councils.

Consultation and participation

  • Staff and student consultation is important in determining the future use of school buildings.  In addition to demonstrating how they regard their educational surroundings, a dialogue can also provide useful information on how the buildings and their use can be improved.

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