Did the Victorians get it right?

This guide is from Caretakers who have to work in schools and clearly aimed at designers and architects' of new build schools (as well as refurbishments/upgrades).

We know how architects’ like to win awards for their ground-breaking designs and use of modern materials, but it doesn't hurt to take a step backwards and look to the past and see what actually worked. In fact, the Victorian's got a lot of things right.

Firstly, a subject that has recently been discussed on our forums, it concerns the use of carpets in schools. They may well keep noise levels down and look nice when first fitted, but after a few 100 pupils have marched over it with grass cuttings from the sports fields and walked in dog mess, they don't stay looking good for long. Caretakers find it unpleasant when having to get vomit out of carpet piles when pupils have been ill and when pupils have trodden their lunches and snacks on a carpet, they are frankly unhygienic harbouring all sorts of allergies, bacteria and wildlife/pests.

Washable vinyl is much more suitable in schools and newer soft (quiet) vinyl is available in an assortment of colours to blend in with your colour schemes.

Next, I'd like to move on to toilets. Toilets are renowned as places of vandalism and need to be made of materials that can withstand heavy abuse. So please stop making toilet cubical and doors from light weight MDF or chipboard. These need to be made from solid wood doors and brick or vandal proof partitions. They need to be painted so that any graffiti can be washed off easily and painted afterwards.

There are now solid, unbreakable materials’ (looks like granite) that sinks and toilet can be made from. These can even be sanded to remove graffiti and will take the toughest misuse. Flooring needs to be easily washable on a regular basis and if using vinyl, edges need to be curved like in showers and wet rooms and have floor drainage. Floor drains would aid cleaning and also prevent major flood incidents extending to corridors (a regular occurrence in many schools).

Please stop thinking that drinking fountains should be positioned in toilets. They encourage vandalism and require constant sanitizing to prevent bacteria spread by pupils who just don't understand issues with cross contamination. Few pupils, if any ever wash their hands after going to the toilet as this just doesn't seem to be instilled in kids these days. Looking under a microscope you will see that drinking fountain in toilets are covered in faecal matter. Would you like to drink water contaminated with someone else’s poo?

Next, a few words about convector heaters, if you visit most secondary schools you will find these dented, bent and probably not working correctly. Control stats are often covered by teachers pinning pupils work to walls and few teachers understand how to operate them. Often we read on our forums about teachers complaining it is too hot or cold in their rooms with windows wide open to keep the air fresh while the heater is rattling its heart out trying to heat the room.
The biggest cause of callouts at night for caretakers is when the boilers frost stat as cut in and all the convector heaters start to operate on their own blowing warm air in front of PIR sensors.

Some architects’ tried installing overhead panel heaters to free up the spaces occupied by conventional heaters. But they just don't work. It takes ages for the heat to eventually arrive at head height and by the time it has the poor teacher is roasted. Likewise, without opening all the doors and windows, it takes hours when turned off for the affect to be felt by the occupants of the room.

Again, the Victorians got this right. Heavy iron painted radiators that were able to take any battering given to them by pupils (If a pupils tries to kick an iron radiator, they don't damage the radiator, they just hurt themselves) and with careful adjustment, most caretakers can get them set to satisfy most teachers requirement (there will always be the exception though). There are modern equivalents to this type of radiator but please ensure that there are no 'pupil accessible' bleed valves or adjustments.

It was a craze at one time to install designer electric sockets and switches. From my own experience, these were not readily replaceable, were ridiculously expensive to replace, could not be replaced for cheaper alternatives and just as expensive to have removed and standard fittings put in their place. They were also unable to put up with the kind of use/misuse in a school environment.

Avoid installing ceiling grids and tiles except in staff only areas. Pupils love to hit ceiling tiles and knock them out especially in corridors and stairways. They may not contain hazardous substances these days, but the fibrous material does make you itch until you have managed to have a shower. The shape of some tiles makes it very difficult for the DIY caretaker to get a good looking fit. Pupils also like to hide contraband in places like toilet ceilings. When replacing damaged ceiling tiles, many a caretaker has been hit on the head or knocked off of his steps by a cascade of hidden books or the remains of many months worth of uneaten sandwiches. I once found a stash of dirty underpants where a pupil regularly soiled himself. Please stick to solid plastered painted ceilings.

So, before grabbing that fresh sheet of white paper to complete your designs, just have a think about the options that were used in the past. The UK has been building new schools for 100's of years and in that time, some ideas have proved the test of time. Better still, speak to caretakers and find out what works and what doesn't.

I've commented a number of times about the Victorian era, but the truth is, many Victorian schools are still standing. Many much newer schools built in the 60's and 70's have been demolished. Admittedly, the Victorians over engineered everything they built, but as far as schools go, they needed to.

I'd personally go as far to say that ideas like placing the toilets outdoors was a good idea. My school had outside toilets. They didn't stink the school out and the caretaker just went in with a hose and disinfectant when they began to smell. Yes, they were cold in the winter, but kids didn't spend long in them. However, I don't go as far to suggest we go back to the days of wooden slat toilet seats and Izal (Greaseproof) medicated toilet paper.

I am sure there will be many other suggestions from our forum members as how best to improve our schools and I will add their comments over time to this guide.