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21 February 2018
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Building a new Bitterne Park school PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 16:13

christopher whitbreadHow do you move a school of 1500 students into a completely new building? spoke to Christopher Whitbread, a man with several plans, to find out.


Remember labelling all the boxes when you moved house so, hopefully, all your stuff ended up in the right room? Well imagine moving a school of 1500 students into a completely new three-and-a-half storey building with 90 teaching spaces.

That’s a lot of packing crates, stickers and timetabling!

Deputy head of Bitterne Park secondary, Christopher Whitbread, is the man charged with the task. And fortunately he's got several plans – most of them on his office walls! I chatted to him at the end of March, and these photos were taken late March and early April.

bp build from street march17

Anyone who’s passed Bitterne Park secondary school lately will have noticed that the gigantic new building at the bottom of what was the school field seems to have shot up.

In fact it’s on schedule to open in September, and on the east side many of the classrooms are nearly finished.

“You walk into some of those rooms and they’re now just waiting for carpet and doors,” says Chris, as we chat in his office in the sixth form, the walls adorned with floor plans of the various storeys.

“But then you’ve got the west side where they’re still putting the external walls on.”

“They've got teams of the same trades all coordinating with one another. So I brought some students to one of their planning sessions the other day and we watched them. And it's all Post-it notes on big plans… At the moment you've got different areas of the school all working in time with one another.

“So it's all quite interesting.”

Fortunately for Chris, it wasn’t his job to design the new school or coordinate the actual building work!

‘Most of my time is on the 'decant' side of moving our school.’

“The Education Funding Agency (EFA) set the building size. They tap in '1800 students' because that's how big the school will be within five years; 1500 at the moment, 60 additional students each year [for the next five], which is what the EFA have stipulated. That 'bulge' in Southampton is coming through by 2020-2022. It's going through primaries at the moment, and it will be going through secondaries. So they type in 1800 into a computer and the computer says: 'That's what you've got'.”

“All of the design work that we can influence in the building has now been done. Most of my time now is on the 'decant' side of moving our school.”

photo 1 supplied
View of the north side with cement board and insulation going on

As well as managing the move, Chris is still deputy head of the main school, so he says he’s been balancing the day job with working with Kier, the building contractors, and the EFA.

“Typically in the early stages I was putting by Thursdays to work with them. I’d come out the meetings with a great big long list. And it would be like: I need to do my day job now. And they all go back to their offices and carry on with what they were talking about!”

His desk phone rings, again, as we talk...

“But we’ve made a huge effort to keep any impact from building work completely separate to the running of the school. And I think we’ve been quite successful with that.”

He explains that while there will be a brand new school, not everything inside will also be new and sparkly:

“We're taking every single chair, every single table, every single bit of loose furniture that we've got with us.”

While some school furniture is 20 or even 30 years’ old, a phased refurbishment over time is apparently planned. “But at the end of the day, it's a classroom, and what goes on in the classroom is the most important thing, whether or not you've got a new chair doesn't matter, does it?”


The big task over the summer holidays is moving from the old school to the new. And while Kier do the actual moving, the school have to do the packing.

“You know what it's like packing up a house, let alone packing up a school with 1500 students,” says Chris.

They could start packing early but for health and safety considerations: “Kier will deliver we think probably three or four thousand great big plastic crates, so we start filling them up. Where do we then stack them? Where do we put them? We've got to think, we've got students on site...”

“So the big job we've got at the moment, and a huge amount of my time, is now planning the packing up of the school: how are we going to do it; when are we going to do it? All of the ICT has to move; all of the servers have to move; all of the kitchen has to move... I could go on forever telling you all the things that have to move!

“All of the classrooms. All of the DT equipment. We are moving into new science labs, but all of the existing equipment has to come with us. So all of the prep rooms, all of the glassware, all of the movable things...”

Fortunately, it turns out Kier have done this sort of thing before, and will bring specialist teams to do the move – although it is apparently one of the biggest schools they’ve ever done.

In fact it will be one of the biggest schools in the south by the time it’s full.

Belt and braces

The school has even had to prepare a timetable for both the old and new buildings for September (it sounds a bit like playing 3D chess – a combination of computer programme and experience coupled with pen and paper!), just in case the worst happens and there’s a delay with the new building.

So if push came to shove, would they have to unpack again?

“Well, even though Kier have given us hand-over dates now, hopefully when we start packing boxes, which we'll start doing after Easter, it should all be fine. But we have to have that contingency.”

Chris says that the transition to the new building also needs careful planning, with a phased approach, and the school is very conscious that, for 11-year-olds, it will be their first day at secondary school.

“They need to know where the toilets are, where their classrooms are, where their tutor group is; 'Where's my locker? How do I use the kitchen? Where are the fire assembly points? How do I get around the building?'... Because the building's three-and-a-half storeys high, 110 metres long and 40 metres wide: it's a big old place.”


He says the new building will bring a number of advantages, not least in that departments can be grouped together. Maths, for example, at the moment is spread across five different blocks of mobile classrooms. And rather than being split across two buildings, Science can all be on the same floor in a horseshoe-type arrangement around a prep room – and all science rooms will have new furniture. Meanwhile English will be grouped around the library.

photo 2
Inside the main dining hall space as the internal walls begin to go up

Another benefit, as a result of some further funding, is that up-to-date interactive LCD screens will be put into almost every classroom.

“A lot of the old technology in the current school is on different systems so having a standardised front of classroom means that it can be centrally controlled and maintained by our IT guys, and also, if you teach in Maths Classroom 1 Period 1 but then have to [move room], you've got exactly the same thing there – everything's on the same system, it's the same technology: touch screen, so no need to worry about these pens that get lost... This ability to have more of a standardised approach – it's not going to mean that everyone teaches in exactly the same way but you've got the same facilities throughout the whole building.”

photo 3
The north and south - a mix of brick and render

And there has also been scope to customise rooms to some degree for different departments.

He says other advantages will be the dedicated refectory, as well as a separate assembly hall with seating that can be moved electronically to create a large teaching or general space, a bigger library, more toilets (60s buildings never apparently had enough), a lift serving every floor and making the school fully wheelchair accessible – the list goes on.

Old school

All well and good. But isn’t it nice to go outside between lessons sometimes – to have to switch from building to building?

“Well it's great when the weather's like today, but last week, on a wet Wednesday when the rain's coming horizontally and the students are running between buildings because it's chucking down…. so there are pros and cons.”

What about the old school, which won’t just be closed but completely demolished once everyone’s moved into the new building, to make way for outdoor playing space. Many have passed through its doors over the years: won’t it be sad to see it go?

“People love the old school, and I love the old school as well: the feel of the old school. It's got 50 years of history seeping out the walls – how can you then recreate that in a brand new building? It's like moving from an old house into a new build. You might bring your own pictures with you, and you might bring your own furniture with you, but it's then, how do you create that ethos in the school. So that's key for us.”

Guy Phillips

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