Today is a big day for me and for Chantry. I will be putting a spade in the ground, cutting a sod of turf, and then smiling very, very broadly. It’s a small act but one that marks the beginning of the end of a long journey for Suffolk New Academy.
Chantry School, as was, began life almost fifty-two years ago, when it served the fast-growing community of south-west Ipswich. Pre-war maps show fields around the house that became St Joseph’s School, but in the thirty years following the Second World War, the entire space between Wherstead Road, Belstead Road, London Road and the A14 was filled in with new houses – a new community that was once planned to extend over the Belstead Village itself and beyond. Two enormous schools were built to serve this new part of town – Stoke and Chantry High Schools. Chantry was common to many new school buildings of the 1960s: following the pattern set by Alison and Peter Smithson in their famous modernist school at Hunstanton in Norfolk, it was uncompromisingly modern, largely pre-fabricated and – crucially – cheap. This was a time of mass house-building and thousands of new schools were needed across the land, and the only way to pay for it was to build them for as little money as possible.
Although we look back at ‘60s architecture with derision nowadays, it is important to remember the spirit that made these buildings happen. This was a brave new world, where everyone believed in the potential of progress through engineering and mass-manufacturing. Jet airline travel was just beginning and increasingly numbers of families could now afford a car. You can see why people believed they were beginning to live in ‘the future’. Schools like Chantry spoke the same language.
Whilst much of what we have today materialised out of these great years of invention, much of the vision soon clashed with the realities of living, with the English weather, and with our urge to connect with the past. Like in Hunstanton, the children at Chantry suffered stifling heat in the summer and biting cold in the winter. Rain soon leaked, then poured, through the flat roofs. Recently, ceilings started falling down. The dream had become cracked, lifeless, inhuman and drab.
So it was time for a new school for Chantry, one that projected the same aspiration as fifty years ago, but with the quality we rightly now expect of our public buildings. Much was promised over many years but never delivered, and one scheme – on the table for some years – had to be cancelled due to excessive cost. It was my job to do what others had failed to do and secure the money for a new school. I must admit I was doubtful about my chances of success, given how little money the government has to spend. But after years of lobbying, the education secretary and chancellor gave us the green light, and building work will begin after the turf-cutting today.
What then of the new school, now home to Suffolk New Academy? This new building is by Fielden Clegg Bradley, one of the finest architectural practices in the world. And in this sturdy, handsome, brick building, they’ve produced a school that will stand the test of time. This is no flashy wonder, that will fade to grey over the years, but a building of real vision but rooted in tradition, one that will change as we and our community change over the years. It is truly a school for the future, one that I am intensely proud to have helped bring to our town.