November 1

Inspiring students with inspiring spaces

Our ‘Topping out’ ceremony marked a major milestone in our redevelopment project at Seniors, an inspirational redevelopment that will utterly transform the school for the staff and students.

Blackheath High is a school with a proud tradition of love of learning and strength of community. Consistent with the principles of the founders of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), the education provided here for girls has always balanced academic excellence with breadth and innovation. We have a strong tradition of being open to all social classes and backgrounds, a haven where girls mix without prejudice or judgement. Central to that tradition has always been the opportunity for the girls and staff to share inspiring spaces that promote learning, reflection and socialising. 

The original school building from 1880 in Wemyss Road, was the GDST’s first ever purpose-built school, and as such, the girls benefitted from cutting edge design of the day. The central school hall itself was designed by Edward Robson and built in 1897 to act, as it was put at the time, ‘as a silent form of teaching’. By this, they didn’t mean that girls should tiptoe in silence around the communal spaces (silence is not a quality we associate with Blackheath High girls), but rather that the entrances and internal walls of the hall could carry sculptures, bas-reliefs, moral inscriptions and so forth - all of which would act as what they termed ‘civilising co-ercions’.

I believe the central tenet of this idea was inspiration for the students, created by inspiring spaces and the decoration within, this would help to provide a civilising and culturally enriching education for the girls. The central hall in Wemyss Road was used both as a space where the community could gather for shared rehearsal of moral and religious values, but also for school activities such as drill and music. Indeed, it is still used in this way by the Juniors, although more music, less drill!).

The hall at Wemyss Road was able to act as that civilising heart of the Senior school throughout the entire 20th century, but as the school grew in popularity and numbers, it became increasingly clear that a new home was needed. The Senior school moved across the Heath into the former Church Army buildings in Vanbrugh Park and the Junior school moved into Wemyss Road from Morden Road in 1994. I like to imagine a mass decamp of girls carrying desks across the heath, but I think in reality, it was much less Enid Blyton! The school quickly settled into its new home, adding a new resources centre, theatre and Sports pavilion as we moved into the 21st Century. 

And so the vision for the redevelopment was born, under Mrs Lawes’ leadership of the school. Whilst accommodation at Vanbrugh Park has been ample since the 1990s, the project will utterly transform the educational experience here for the girls.

Buildings do not make school communities, people do, but the environment in which we work can inspire, support and augment our educational aims. Churchill always seems to have a quote for every occasion and he does not disappoint on this occasion either. He said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I like this idea of harmony and interaction between a community and its home and the architecture of iconic buildings like the Scottish parliament or the Olympic swimming venue only serve to illustrate the impact of great architectural design. 

With this in mind, we enter the final phase of the school’s redevelopment with great optimism and enthusiasm. There is no doubt we feel incredibly fortunate to experience such a transformation; one which really resonates with the original pioneering values and aims of our founders.

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