The Decorated School

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Faculty of Education


This research network will record and begin to analyse what we have termed 'the decorated school'. For our purposes, 'the decorated school' means those aspects of the school building and surrounds that were worked on by artists and sculptors to integrated art works intended to project ideas about education in relation to notions of local or national identities. Mural decoration has been characteristic in school design in the past and is often a feature in the present design of new schools and today is frequently used as a vehicle for pupil or community participation. But in the past there was a deep appreciation of how the best design and art might act as a kind of educator and in England regional education officers such as Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire, Stuart Mason in Leicestershire and John Newsom in Hertfordshire ensured that new school buildings would contain works of beauty and excellent design. The post-war period was a time when the renewal of school buildings led to artists working collaboratively with architects and educators to decorate school interiors and grounds. The artifacts installed ranged from ceramic tiles to large scale murals and sculptures. These items were carefully considered to project a particular image of childhood, adolescence or education to a specific local audience.
The research network will meet at sites where there are existing examples that have survived to date. Additionally, the research will document what has existed, and what remains, making this data publicly available through a website and publication. This is urgent work as many school buildings that were built in the past are threatened with demolition as the renewal of the building stock progresses.

Planned Impact

By the end of the project, there will be an enhanced understanding that the decoration of the school environment has a long and remarkable history, that it has been neglected as a subject, that it has hitherto poorly researched consequences for child development, that it is pertinent to today, that it is of inter-disciplinary concern to art historians, educationalists, sociologists, architects, curators, planners and policy makers. In addition, there will be generated a method of working and a multi-disciplinary theorisation of the subject that can be applied elsewhere in the world.
Historians of art, architecture and education will combine their knowledge and disciplinary expertise and in drawing together existing understanding will generate the production of new knowledge that will stimulate new research questions regarding the place of art and the role of artists in the school of the 21st century. This fundamental question will be addressed through the perspective of those aspects that appear to have been vital in the past i.e. national identity and status; notion of education; view of the child or concept of childhood; school 'as a canvas for the arts 'and the school building as a teacher. The involvement of practicing architects currently designing schools who, through established collaboration with the PI have consolidated an interest in drawing knowledge from the past in designing for the future, will add significant value and associated impact to the activities envisaged and the products to be generated. The activities will draw in a wider audience of researchers and practitioners while keeping a clear focus on multiple ways of viewing, recording and analysing examples of 'the decorated school'. The activities and their outcomes will stimulate new research agendas for historians of education, designers of new school buildings, heritage and cultural industries professionals, art historians and architectural historians as well as those involved in networks of multi-disciplinary groups considering how the communications and information technology revolution is transforming learning and the visual culture of schools as spaces for learning.
Description The grant has enabled the term The Decorated School to be defined and recognised as a focus of international / global scholarly research. It has generated substantial public engagement and activity in re-evaluating the significance of public art as integral to the built environment of schools.
Exploitation Route The findings will stimulate parallel research and activity in Europe and in the USA via a new interactive searchable website that is being developed. This will make the initial findings accessible and useable to non academic as well as scholarly audiences.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings have been presented in an attractive and accessible book - C. Burke, J,Howard and P. Cunningham, The Decorated School. Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling (published by Black Dog, 2013). This and other related articles in academic journals have been cited by others.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural

Description Impact Enhancement Award
Amount £10,500 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 12/2014
Description AHRC Collaborative Cash: The Decorated School and strategic insights 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited Networking event organised by the University of Edinburgh. Motivation - AHRC moving in the direction of funding collaborative projects bringing disciplines together. The Decorated School was presented as a case that illustrated the potential and challenges involved.

The event was organised to encourage academics to consider the potential of cross-disciplinary research collaborations. Speakers included the PI of the Decorated School Network as well as representatives from the AHRC Advisory Board and AHRC Council.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description BBC Radio 4 'Making History' broadcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The programme included a feature about the Fred Millett murals at St Crispin's School that were being restored. The Decorated School network was present and participated.

BBC Radio 4 'Making History' included a story about St Crispin's School and its mural that has recently been restored. The programme was broadcast on Tuesday 11th October at 3.00pm. It can be listened to again via the Making History website.

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Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
Description Greenside School Mural Unveiled 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact School based community event to celebrate the rediscovery of a Gordon Cullen mural in the foyer of Greenside primary school, London

In 2011 Greenside Primary School, in Shepherd's Bush, hosted an evening to share this historical cultural treasure with the local community and everyone interested in the school's cultural heritage. 20th Century Design, architecture and art historian Alan Power. After this, a successful fund raising campaign was coordinated by a parent resulting in a hugely successful formal opening and fare.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013