Secondary Modern

Wirral’s Solar Campus was a global pioneer in the field of ecology. Its gradual destruction tells a story about how idealistic social and architectural ideas have been ground down by class and regional inequalities.

The least-told story of the Green Industrial Revolution is that it began sixty years ago on Merseyside. The Solar Campus in Wallasey, opened as St. George’s Secondary Modern School in 1961, was one of the first passively-heated buildings in Europe, utilising a vast, south-facing glass wall to trap heat and distribute it throughout the school. Yet despite being Grade II listed by English Heritage in 1996, the Solar Campus is now in a shocking state of disrepair, having been neglected and misused for decades, and has stood empty since last summer. 

How could a building as innovative and necessary as this arrive at such a fate? Its architect, Emslie Morgan — working for Wallasey Council at a time when local authorities had their own large, idealistic architects’ and planning departments — believed that his design would provide a blueprint for sustainable civic buildings across the country, if not the world. In practice, the Solar Building remained unique and Morgan’s achievements were overlooked by a local authority which, simply, did not know what to make of them. 

In his 1969 survey of the role of technology in modern-day architecture, the critic Reyner Banham singled out the Solar Campus as ‘an imaginative reappraisal of one of the oldest environmental controls known to man’, underlining the fact that, in his role as a local authority architect, Morgan had been permitted — if not outright encouraged — to use innovative design and engineering methods for an utterly everyday purpose.    

The mass building of state schools in the 1950s and 1960s relied on a huge amount of standardised design. Their specifications were chopped and shaped until a mutually unsatisfactory compromise was reached between the demands of architects, who believed their designs held the key to massive social transformation, and those of the Ministry of Education, which held the purse strings. 

Morgan, who died prematurely in 1964, managed to avoid such compromises because he was working at a time when the projects of physical and social reconstruction were seen as symbiotic and not exclusive. That a secondary modern school could also be an eco-school, a building that might showcase a prosperous town’s imagination and foresight, wasn’t called into question.  

The glass panels not only enabled the school to heat itself, augmented only by a small boiler in winter and the use of heat-giving tungsten lights. They also worked, in their way, to embody the optimism of the ideals to which Morgan was working: to let light in, to allow children traditionally fobbed off with poor-quality buildings and education to see things differently. That the building has suffered to the extent it has can only be attributed to the loss of such foresight and encouragement, which in turn reflected both a loss of local optimism and a wider loss of political nerve.

Wallasey, absorbed into Wirral Council since local government structures were reorganised in the 1970s, is a visibly suffering town. The Wirral peninsula faces Liverpool on the other side of the Mersey: a place of profound economic, social, and spatial divides with the consequences to match. The M53 motorway — recently memorialised in the artist Mark Leckey’s Tate Britain installation, Under Under In — splits the borough in half, with a gap in life expectancy of ten years between the richer, greener area west and the poorer ex-industrial east.

The Solar Campus is nestled next to the approach road for the M53, on the eastern side. The week before the December election I was shown around the campus by Mick Simpson, who acted as principal at the Emslie Morgan Academy, a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) run on the site by the Liverpool City Region Academy Trust until its closure in July 2019. The academy had acted as the Wirral’s only PRU, taking over a hundred boys from across this economically disparate borough and, in Simpson’s words, placing them in a setting that was ‘clearly unfit for purpose’. 

Simpson wanted to tell me how it closed, and what the consequences of the Academy’s closure would be for the young people who had gone there. It didn’t close just because of cuts — though he was clear that ‘nine years of austerity haven’t helped one bit’. Neither did it close purely because the Solar Building had not been built for use by children who had — in the words of Christine Royle, a previous headteacher at the unit — ‘very little patience with the building’ and its idiosyncrasies.

The two sets of glass walls, designed by Morgan to trap heat and to ventilate the school through a system of vents, were used as escape hatches by children to leave their own classrooms, reach other teaching rooms, and even to scale the roof. The academy trust inherited a building that was fragile and under-maintained, and never built for the purpose it came to be used for. 

One of the key aspects of Morgan’s design was that, in winter, when there was insufficient sunlight to heat the whole school, classrooms would be heated through a combination of old-style, tungsten-bulb lighting (since replaced with low-energy bulbs which give off little heat) and the body heat created by around 800 schoolchildren plus staff. A student body a tenth of that size couldn’t hope to keep the place warm. 

It’s not hard to imagine how children expelled from mainstream schools — often housed in relatively flash New Labour-era buildings — might respond to being sent to a setting which, on its windowless north-facing side, looks like a young offenders’ institute. Or, noted Simpson, how they might be able to scale the bitumen-patched roof and throw missiles from it: ‘The whole place just said to them, “we don’t care about you”, and that’s how they responded.’

Simpson was seconded to the Emslie Morgan Academy in January 2019 from Kilgarth School, a secondary school in nearby Birkenhead for fifty-five boys with complex social, emotional, and mental health needs, when it became clear that the school was failing after being forced through the academisation process in 2015. Liverpool City Region Academy Trust, established by a management team based at a further education college in north Liverpool, had no experience of running either pupil referral units or special schools.

After a disastrous OFSTED inspection, which received a large amount of local media coverage focusing on its reports of violent behaviour and extraordinarily high levels of non-attendance, Simpson agreed to become the academy’s temporary principal. Within six months it had closed, the academy trust citing ‘reducing need for the type and size of alternative provision in Wirral’, in spite of the fact that student numbers had been permitted to increase from 80 to 100 in 2017. 

Simpson believes the academy could have become successful had it been given the time and resources to do so. Now back at Kilgarth School, he and his staff are feeling the pressure of underfunding. Nominally to cover the cost of educating each student with an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP), the school receives £8,100 in additional funding on top of the £10,000 per head awarded to special schools. 

However, Simpson points out, ‘if the school were a few miles away in West Cheshire we would receive another £13,500 per student, and in some English local authorities it would be £24,000.’ There’s no particular correlation between the affluence of a local authority and how much funding it allows for each student with an EHCP: there is no national funding formula, meaning each local authority sets its own figure.

Like the Solar Campus, Kilgarth School lies on the poor side of Wirral’s divide, in Birkenhead’s north end. Opened in 1973, it’s a specialist secondary school operating in a 100-year-old primary school building. My first impressions on visiting were that it looks like a probation centre; inside, it felt as claustrophobic as a hospital ward. It has no dedicated dining hall or assembly hall, no outdoor space, and no playing field. Students pick up their lunches from a hatch in the gymnasium and have to take it into an unused classroom to eat. 

And yet, for all this, most thrive here. Another few months, says Simpson, and he and his teachers could have turned Emslie Morgan Academy around using the same methods they employ at Kilgarth: calm, empathetic communication, a non-punishment policy, and a simple belief that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children should not be marginalised even further, even when every element of their environment suggests that is their destiny. 

Kilgarth’s school governors are now pressing Wirral Council for more funding, but that wouldn’t give them the new building they desperately need: it would only secure more money to better help students in the one they have.  

‘We’ve had two ‘outstanding’ OFSTEDs [at Kilgarth] in four years, on a shoestring, in a building totally unsuited to the needs of the children we teach there,’ Simpson told me, driving me back to the station. The Emslie Morgan Academy never even had a chance to get that far. As we climbed the flyover, approaching the M53, you could see the Solar Campus below: fresh-looking and expansive, the way it might have looked in 1961. You couldn’t see the cracks from that far away.