Rossall’s Future Heritage Project

Headmaster Jeremy Quartermain reflects upon the challenges of preserving the
architectural heritage of our schools.

Schools within the independent sector face mounting challenges. The current cost of living crisis and the spectre of VAT on school fees places considerable pressure on even the most robust of school finances. Our budgets have already been stretched by inflation-busting rises in labour, food and energy costs, and it only seems like yesterday that we dusted ourselves off and emerged from the Covid pandemic. Those leading independent schools certainly live during interesting times!

Our first priority must be to provide an outstanding quality of education for our children with a context that safeguards their wellbeing. As educators, we are naturally drawn towards easy wins that enrich our children’s learning experience. Projects such as the installation of touchscreen televisions in classrooms and the refurbishment of boarding houses provide instant and tangible benefits. Conversely, maintenance and capital expenditure budgets tend to suffer most when senior executives and boards of governors feel pressure to balance the books.

Inevitably, there is always a temptation to defer a non-urgent project until the following year. Viewed in isolation, such deferrals may make perfect sense but, collectively, the postponement of such projects will inevitably lead to a period of managed decline. Benign neglect results in the gradual deterioration of the physical fabric of our buildings and the cost of remedial work spirals with each passing year. Prevention is always better than a cure.

It is extraordinary to reflect upon the fact that Rossall School is home to no less than twenty percent of Fleetwood’s listed buildings. We are custodians of these buildings and it is our moral responsibility to preserve and protect them; not just because they are a physical manifestation of the collective memory and identity of our community, but because they are of very real significance in terms of the architectural heritage of the nation.

The majority of Rossall’s historic buildings are situated in and around our spectacular square. They date from the mid-Victorian period and range from ‘Big School’ which is a rather whimsical example of Gothic Revival to the perfectly proportioned Sumner Library which resembles a Lowlands Scottish Kirk. Originally built as the School Chapel, it was soon outstripped by a burgeoning pupil body which was fuelled by the expansion of the industrial cities of the North.

The prolific Lancastrian architect Edward Paley, designed our new school chapel in the early 1860s and it is this elegant chapel which houses such gems as our Harrison and Harrison organ (currently being restored thanks to the beneficence of Old Rossallians) and the ‘Memorial Chapel’ designed by the brilliant Scottish architect and furniture designer Robert Lorrimer. The Memorial Chapel contains some exquisite sculptures by Alice Meredith Williams and a number of wooden carvings that attract particular interest from art historians.

Time does not stand still and these buildings are now in need of urgent repair. Were we to prevaricate, then it is the case that crumbling masonry, corroded metal, rotting roof beams and leaking pipes would threaten their very survival. Our coastal location makes salt corrosion a particular challenge; so too do the winter winds of the wild Fylde. In hindsight, sandstone was perhaps not the wisest choice of building materials. Looking after such buildings is a true labour of love and an extremely expensive one at that. Meeting the exacting requirements of external bodies is time-consuming. The lofty idealism of bodies such as Historic England, who insist on the use of like-to-like materials, often conflicts with a School’s need to achieve greater energy efficiency or keep a lid on costs.

Increasingly, it feels unreasonable to expect hard-pushed fee-paying parents to shoulder the burden of subsidising the restoration of such buildings. In any case, the preservation of these buildings is surely the responsibility of the wider school community. We are fortunate that the Rossall Foundation helps us to raise the funds necessary to undertake ambitious projects such as the re-roofing of Big School and the repair of the East Window in the Chapel. There is an inevitability that schools will have to become increasingly resourceful
and creative in terms of their approach to raising funds for such projects. Glossy brochures, slick launches and drone shots only get you so far. Ultimately, success is dependent upon our ability to tell the story of our buildings and explain why donations to such projects support our future ambitions and are not just exercises in dewy-eyed nostalgia.

Collectively, Big School, the Chapel of St John the Baptist and the Sumner Library constitute the intellectual, spiritual and creative heart of our community. The first phase of the Future Heritage project is essentially restorative. Phase two will focus upon ensuring that the buildings support the ambitions of our pupils well into the future. The School has a reputation for excellence within the performing arts and Big School hosts the annual musical which, in recent years, has included sell-out performances of Chicago and West Side Story. The technical capabilities of the building in terms of sound, lighting and staging are in need of an overhaul. We would all agree that professional standard performances are deserving of an appropriate level of technical support. The library will become a modern study space that is responsive to the way young people learn in the twenty-first century. Finally, the Chapel will become an increasingly adaptive space that reflects the School’s ecumenical character. It is right that the use of our most precious buildings should evolve over time. Given the turbulent economic and political landscape, it seems not unreasonable to presume that the current boom in new buildings will most likely subside. Schools will need to think creatively about how to utilise existing buildings more effectively.

Preserving the past must go hand-in-hand with a desire to build for the future. Indeed, the future does not need to be built in concrete, steel and glass. Instead, we should see a renaissance of interest in preserving and adapting our historic buildings so as to ensure that they support the hopes and dreams of future generations of children.

Read more about the Future Heritage Project

For more information, or to make a donation, please contact [email protected]

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School