Taking on an old building is a commitment that can pay dividends, says Angela Youngman.

Found in virtually every village and town across the UK, the Victorian school is an integral part of the landscape. But their existence is coming under threat and alternative uses are being sought to prevent their demolition. Nurseries and kindergartens are regarded as a perfect answer – and those who have already used this type of building agree.

Beverley Sykes of Wonderland Nursery near Barnsley comments ‘I would do it again. We brought this mid-Victorian Old Pond School building four years ago. It offers lots of space – we have a large hall for the three to four-year-olds and a smaller room to one side for the babies. The big windows give lots of light. The perimeter is fully walled and safe.‘

But why are the buildings under threat? Dr Kathryn Ferry of the Victorian Society says, ‘We fear that many schools will be lost under the Building Schools for the Future programme which favours demolition over refurbishment. The allocation of funding – 50% for demolition and new buildings, 35% for major refurbishments and 15% for minor refurbishments – will be an incentive to replace schools. If these schools had regular maintenance and there was a will and incentive to refurbish them, they could last another 130 years. They are well built, quality buildings with big windows, high ceilings, lots of ventilation and a light airy, environment for children.’

According to English Heritage, there are nearly 6,000 listed school buildings or former school buildings in England. Many others are in conservation areas and are of heritage significance or importance to their community.

The TV programme Restoration Village even featured a Victorian school building in Pulham St Mary, Norfolk. Empty and left derelict for many years, it needs restoration but the fabric is still solid. Work to be done includes dealing with rotting floorboards, flaking plaster and damaged ceiling, together with landscaping. Villagers are seeking to turn the building into a facility for under fives as well as a local community centre.

The location of Victorian schools within the community means that they are already being considered by some local authorities as venues for the roll out of Sure Start centres linked to community facilities. Since the building is usually in the centre of a community, it is a familiar sight and easy for many parents to reach on foot rather than by car or public transport. Rural areas like Norfolk and Yorkshire which have a large proportion of small Victorian village schools are encouraging head teachers to convert or add on a small area for use as a nursery.

Turning a former Victorian school into a nursery/kindergarten tends to be popular with parents and local people. Such a use maintains the educational function of the building, and provides a centre for children in the area. Nurseries which already use old buildings often highlight the fact in their promotional and advertising literature because it is regarded as a good selling point. Parents like the sense of continuity, and the security offered by the sturdy buildings. 

An added advantage is that Victorian school buildings generally come complete with a self contained playground. Surrounded by walls or iron railings; it provides a secure location in which young children can play. The concrete surface is usually replaced with a more child friendly surface and brightened up with planters and sand pit. Murals are added to walls and play equipment introduced.  In village settings, the use of a school for a nursery gives a focus to communities which have often lost facilities such as a post office, village shop, village school even the pub.

The amount of space available within a Victorian school building tends to surprise people. There is always at least two large rooms plus smaller rooms which can be used for the care of babies and provide facilities for staff. The conversion of a listed building for Portsmouth Grammar School Nursery was even able to incorporate a parents room complete with tea and coffee as well as toys for siblings.

Taking on an old building does require commitment. Wonderland Nursery had to install gas pipes, remove an asbestos heater and totally refurbish the entire building. Maintenance is ongoing – currently the roof needs repairing. On the other hand, the three-foot-thick walls are sturdy and built to last. Although plumbing and sanitary-ware generally needs updating; all the pipe-work was already at suitable levels for young children.

Major renovation was needed before the Portsmouth Grammar School Nursery could move into its quarters within a listed building. With the aid of architects from Hampshire County Council, the building had to be completely renovated prior to opening in 2001.

Lois Johnson, manageress of the nursery, joined the school just after the renovation was complete. ‘I was genuinely surprised by how light and airy the building was. There are large open areas inside which we can partition off when required by bookcases. The walls are painted nice creamy and lilac colours. The large windows give plenty of light. It is really comfortable. We have got underfloor heating which is lovely for the children. Parents are always impressed when they come in for the first time.’

The Victorian Society is holding a conference in November to discuss ways of preserving Victorian schools. Kathryn Ferry says, ‘We took this on as an issue because we were getting more and more telephone calls from people worried about their local schools being threatened with demolition.

‘Nurseries are a good use for old buildings of this kind. It retains the educational element and in conservation terms, the best use for a building is the one for which it was built. Where school buildings have been taken on as nurseries they are workable and good spaces. People regard it as a good selling point to promote the nursery.’