A tour of Sandringham College, Beaumaris
When we cast our minds back to our childhood and adolescent days and recollect the places that defined those years, schools rank fairly highly. For most of us, school was the place where we spent the greatest amount of time outside of the home. It was in school that relationships were formed (and broken), discoveries were made and we were slowly transformed from children into adults. The school yards, the classrooms and most especially the teachers at our schools influenced the sort of adults that we became.
The schools that we attended, therefore, tend to hold an important place in our hearts.
Thoughts of my teenage years returned to me recently when I had the opportunity to visit Sandringham Secondary College’s Beaumaris campus. Located in the leafy coastal Melbourne suburb of the same name, the school has been educating teenagers since it opened in 1958 as Beaumaris High School. Architecturally speaking, the school is a classic example of the standardised Light Timber Construction (LTC) design that provided the template for almost every government school constructed in Victoria between 1952 and 1977. As part of my work photographically documenting Victorian school buildings, I sought to capture the architecture and character of the classrooms and corridors at Beaumaris.
Like so many Victorian schools of similar age, Sandringham College has big plans to redevelop their Beaumaris campus if money becomes available.
I arrived at the Beaumaris at around 3:30pm, after most of the students had gone home. Staff were working quietly preparing their lessons for the coming day whilst the cleaners had just commenced their rounds.
Returning to a high school – even if it wasn’t the one I attended – was an unusual experience. Walking in through the wooden front doors and waiting outside the general office for the principal brought back so many memories. On one side of the narrow foyer was a wooden honours board, identifying the school’s best and brightest for each year of its existence. On the other side stood the sliding glass windows partitioning the office from the corridor.
The campus principal at Beaumaris is Suzanne Reinhardt. She was kind enough to show me around the school and permitted me to document the architecture. As we walked the corridors, my mind was taken back in time whilst Mrs. Reinhardt explained the school’s history and how the school provided a sound education to its pupils. Peering through the windows into the classrooms with their Venetian blinds and plastic chairs, I remembered once sitting in similar places as an adolescent. Lockers lined the long and straight corridors just as they did at my school. I recalled the daily struggle to gain access to my locker amongst everyone else before the bell rang for the next class.
The former Beaumaris High School was built in several planned stages. Stages 1 and 2 consisted of the connected ‘administration and library’ and ‘science and general classroom’ wings plus a link corridor to the domestic arts wing. In 1960, an ‘arts and music’ wing (with three additional classrooms) plus a standalone manual arts (trades) wing were constructed. The final section, an additional science wing, was added in 1967 (although it was never completed). The school was built to accommodate between 800 and 1000 pupils.
There have been several changes to the buildings in that time. The original science classrooms have been converted into a library and all their fittings removed. Alterations have been made to the home economics rooms and the trades wing has been torn down. The original front doors have been permanently sealed and the original front foyer changed into a music practice room (the office is located in the centre of the school). All blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards. Despite these, much of the original fabric of the school remains. That’s what made it such a good photographic subject.
My high school was almost identical to the Beaumaris campus in terms of layout and fittings, so the school had considerable familiarity to me despite having never been inside. Wherever they have been built, LTC classrooms are characterised by tilted ceilings supported by distinctive ‘zig-zag’ open-web steel rafters. Bi-lateral lighting is provided by large banks of timber-framed windows looking out into the school yard and clerestory windows above the central corridor. This basic design is replicated in hundreds of primary and secondary schools across Victoria.
Even now, there’d be few students who’ve passed through a Victorian government primary or high school and not spent some time in rooms like these.
An original feature of many of the classrooms at Beaumaris are these impressive-looking “triple London” lighting fixtures, which are evenly positioned between the steel rafters.
Like all Victorian LTC school buildings of the era, the classroom wings at Beaumaris consist of “double-loaded corridors“, a term that refers to a long passageway with classrooms arranged on either side. These days, school architects endeavour to arrange classrooms in creative ways to maximise educational outcomes and provide an appealing amenity. Architects in the 1950’s designed schools to be functional with long straight corridors to keep things neat and tidy. It made good sense at the time – the long corridors provided a convenient place to position lockers (or bags in the case of primary schools) and internal windows permitted the corridors to be lit with borrowed light from classrooms and courtyards. (They also allowed principals and school inspectors to view classroom proceedings unobtrusively).
The long straight corridors appear old-fashioned by contemporary standards, but they have their merits. I recall the difficulty I had in Year 7 locating classrooms in a new school. I found the long corridor most beneficial because classrooms were numbered sequentially along those straight lines and so were easier to find. As impressive as some modern school designs may be, I have no idea how new students navigate their way around them.
One of my memories of both primary and high school is the row of clerestory windows above the classroom entrance which were often masked by white Venetian blinds. It never took long for the eyes to wander up there during a dull class when examining the sky outside seemed far preferable to concentrating on the task at hand.
Aside from broadly documenting the architecture, my aim at Sandringham College was to capture some of the atmosphere and the details of the school. Fixtures and fittings give so much away about the age of buildings but also the priorities of the people who designed them.
When I was in school, I recall that every classroom had a gigantic loudspeaker which rested above the blackboard. At Beaumaris, many of them are still there (although in some rooms they have been replaced with more modern equipment). I know that technology in the 1950’s wasn’t what it is now, but I’m still not convinced that the speaker boxes needed to be so big. What’s amusing is that I have since discovered that these ‘Australian Sound’ branded speakers appear to have monetary value: one is available for purchase on eBay for $135!
After an hour of photography (and memories) it was time to leave. Before departure, I walked the corridors one last time, listening to the creaking floor boards as I walked back to the office. By this time, the cleaners had been through many of the classrooms and most of the staff had left for the day. The scent of floor cleaner wafted through the air and the sound of a vacuum cleaner could be heard. As I walked out the front doors, I could hear a distant sports match on the oval.
I quickly strolled the grounds but didn’t take any exterior photos because I have done that previously.
The future of Beaumaris campus
Sandringham Secondary College’s Beaumaris campus has been in the news a lot in recent years. Members of the local community want the campus to secede from Sandringham College and be reinstated as a standalone secondary school once more.
The current state government has ruled this option out, although the community is still fighting with a website and Facebook campaign. Following the government’s decision, the school cancelled Year 7 enrolments in 2014 although this decision has now been reversed. The Labor opposition has pledged that the school will be entirely rebuilt and granted its independence once more if the ALP is elected in the November 2014 election. We’ll await to see the outcome.
According to the school, the future of the Beaumaris campus is bright. Upon entering the Beaumaris campus, visitors are greeted with computer-generated coloured plans for what the school would look like after redevelopment, should the money become available. Just recently, the school undertook a major refurbishment of three science classrooms and I have to say that whilst they look ordinary on the outside, they look terrific on the inside. As a person who works in science, I’m most impressed.
Whilst walking through the school, I spoke to Suzanne Reinhardt about the adequacy of the school’s facilities, the school’s viability as a stand-alone institution and some of the challenges and opportunities that such a move would create. It’s not my job to relay her comments and I don’t personally have a strong view one way or the other. That’s entirely a decision for the Department of Education and the school community to make, although seeing the school and speaking with Suzanne certainly gave me a far better understanding of the issues involved.
Irrespective of anyone’s view about whether the school should or shouldn’t be converted into a standalone secondary college, it’s almost certain that the existing LTC buildings will not survive. There’s a widespread view that LTC’s were built for what is now considered an outmoded model of school education, although their versatility should not be underestimated. The school buildings may not be shiny and new, but nor are they obsolete.
The school has successfully fitted out all classrooms with wi-fi access, but I can also see where movement in the foundations has caused parts of the wooden-framed building to shift. The school had converted two former science rooms into a lovely library, yet I saw a teacher with a hammer making DIY repairs to other parts of the building. Out of sheer frustration, members of the school council have created a video documenting the decay of the buildings.
The condition or age of the buildings is not a reflection on the school as a quality provider of secondary education. In reality, the condition of school buildings is a reflection of the state government’s lack of interest in state education. Many years of inadequate funding has resulted in cheap-and-nasty patch-up jobs which in turn reduce the amenity of the school for both staff and students. This is not at all unique to Beaumaris, but I think it sends a poor message to students and the wider community about how we, as Victorians, value education.
I want to thank the Sandringham College community for allowing my camera and I into their school. As a passionate advocate for state education, I wish the school the very best.