A building for a bright tomorrow

By Simon Hart

‘We had to make sure for our parents, our children, our staff that we created this setting that was going to be unique but would facilitate teaching and learning for all our children regardless of their level of need.’ Claire Bellis-Knox, head teacher

It is the newest primary school building in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, and its symbolism could hardly be greater. In the words of Claire Bellis-Knox, the head teacher of St Cuthbert’s Catholic Primary School on Church Road, off Prescot Road, the splendid building which opened its doors to her 235 pupils earlier this year represents a source of optimism for an entire community.

‘It has given our children, parents, staff and wider school community hope for the future,’ she attests. ‘As a faith school, we’re a hub of the community. For the parents, they were being told our school had longevity, it was sustainable and the future was bright for the children and the families in our wider school community.’

For the visitor to the new school building, there is no shortage of features which mark St Cuthbert’s out as somewhere distinct: from the inner courtyard which Mrs Bellis-Knox regards as ‘the heart of the school’, via the deliberately calming, pale grey colour scheme applied throughout the interior, to the so-called ‘working wall’ of the classrooms with their interactive promethean boards – a technological leap forward made possible by funding from the Archdiocese.

‘Our computing resource in our old school was really archaic to say the least,’ she explains, ‘but now we are right up there with modern technology and the children have been so receptive to it.

‘For our children, it has completely revolutionised the way in which teaching and learning occurs,’ she adds of their transformed surroundings. ‘The fabric of our old building was quite decrepit and although we made the most of a poor situation our new school setting is absolutely perfect and allows us to maximise opportunities for teaching and learning for the benefit of our children.’

Rags to riches
To appreciate fully the significance of this new building, and a ‘rags to riches’ story as Mrs Bellis-Knox calls it, it is necessary to spool back some years in the life of a school founded in 1928 on the ground floor of St Cuthbert’s Church. After the closure of the church in 2002, the school’s own future became increasingly bleak, with pupil numbers falling and rumours of closure growing.

A new chapter opened in 2006, however, thanks to the innovative step of partnering St Cuthbert’s with St Sebastian’s Catholic Primary School in Fairfield in a federation through which the head of the latter school, Dennis Hardiman, assumed the role of executive headteacher, working alongside a head of school at St Cuthbert’s.

It was only this past summer that Mr Hardiman, whose efforts earned him an MBE, retired from his role, and looking back today, he believes that without the ‘innovation’ of bringing the two schools together, St Cuthbert’s might well not have survived.

‘The Archdiocese in co-operation with the local authority took the risk to initiate a brand-new system of school leadership – a federation with St Sebastian's – and this was the keystone to the success story that has been acknowledged both locally and nationally,’ he says. From less than 12 children in Key Stage One in 2006, St Cuthbert’s now has a waiting list and has featured in The Times’ Top 100 Primary Schools list.

If St Cuthbert’s was gradually restored to good health, the goal of a new building for the school first arose in discussions between Mr Hardiman and the late Father Pat Kelly, then parish priest of St Sebastian’s and the first chair of governors of the federation. Pat Moloney, today’s chair of governors, recalls how the pair ‘were always ambitious for a school building’.
He goes on: ‘Father Kelly's successor from 2009 as chair of governors, Mike Laird, himself a former pupil at St Cuthbert's, continued to strive with Dennis for a new build. With the support of local and national politicians, these efforts eventually resulted in St Cuthbert's being included in the Department for Education’s new build programme.’
There was substantial help from the Archdiocese, which contributed to the project’s overall cost of £5.7m. Meanwhile, Liverpool City Council gifted St Cuthbert’s a quarter-acre of land. Staff and pupils moved into the finished building in January, though the second phase of work only concluded in August with the opening of an outdoor play area on the site where the old school stood.

Mr Hardiman, not surprisingly, shares in the delight of ‘our governors, staff and children who haven't stopped smiling since we took over the whole site. This, in Covid times, was sweet reward for all the hard work to deliver a 21st-century school that our community deserves and are grateful for.’ 

Close consultation
It is fair to say this hard work involved the entire school community, given how teachers, pupils and parents were all consulted over a broad range of aspects as the building project took shape. ‘Our children were very opinionated,’ laughs Mrs Bellis-Knox. ‘Some wanted a swimming pool –  that was never going to happen!’

Yet so many other wishes have been granted thanks to a process of close co-operation with the architects, Kier (including, for instance, the boys’ preference not to have urinals in the toilets).

Mrs Bellis-Knox explains: ‘We had a pupil voice, parent voice and staff voice and came together with several ideas of what architecturally the school would look like and even finer details such as choosing the paint colour for the classroom. We did a massive amount of research to make sure the environment would maximise learning.’

This is no exaggeration. The research carried out by Angela Brough, the Assistant Head Teacher and Early Years Lead, included studies highlighting the importance of communication-friendly spaces (CFS) for the school’s youngest children. Meanwhile, Kate Lunt, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Co-ordinator (SENCo) noted the findings of environmental research by the National Autistic Society.

‘Recommendations have certainly been adopted to ensure that our school environment will be autistic-friendly,’ she says. ‘In addition, design choices also accommodate our children, staff or parents who suffer from hypersensitivity.’ Hence the choice of a ‘restful’ pale grey throughout the entire school.

Mrs Bellis-Knox adds: ‘What is typical of a primary school would be primary colours plastered everywhere but our research said the colour palette should be neutral. The walls are very pale grey and it allows for any displays around the school to be focused and purposeful rather than having a sensory overload.’

The courtyard in the centre of the school is arguably the most significant space in the school as an outside place which all the children can access. ‘In our previous school we were very much landlocked so that was top of the priority list,’ Mrs Bellis-Knox affirms. ‘We were looking at having space for them to play, to explore, to investigate – just to make sure the children had a little bit of green space.

‘Prescot Road is a very built-up area and some of our children live in flats or only have a backyard in the house and may not feel comfortable going to local parks so we wanted to make sure as soon as our children came on site, there was somewhere they felt proud of and were safe to explore in as well as to learn.’

Rooted in faith
On the wall of the head teacher’s office where she sits sharing these reflections is a piece of stained glass, taken from the old church building of St Cuthbert’s which stood above the former school. A cherished memento – and not the only one.
She observes: ‘That was something really close to my heart. We wanted to make sure we took a couple of stained glass windows from the church above the school as we were desperate to ensure there was some acknowledgement in the new school of our old school. There were so many memories in the old building for so many people and we thought it would be very foolish to lose everything.’

As well as the aforementioned stained glass, an old piano has also been kept while the architect provided 60 slates from the original roof. ‘They’re going to be displayed on the walls of the school and will have positive messages and affirmations for the children as they go around the school,’ the head teacher says.

‘Thankfully they were also able to get the statue of St Cuthbert off the roof of the old school and he will be positioned in the next month or so at the front of the building. As people come into the school there’s an acknowledgement we’re still a Catholic school – it’s a brand-new building but we’re well aware our roots lie in the faith of the school.’

That faith is equally apparent inside. On a wall in the dining room reads the message: ‘In love with Christ. Be the best I can. Be kind to one another.’ Moreover, each classroom displays a new cross and this brings us to one final piece of the story – namely the part played by the local parish of St Oswald’s and St Cuthbert’s in helping fund these specially commissioned crosses. When Father Mark Beattie, then parish priest, referred in his newsletter to the school’s efforts to raise funds for the crosses, parishioners responded with admirable generosity.

‘Father Mark put it out to parishioners and lots of people were sending money in,’ recalls Mrs Bellis-Knox. ‘There was one parishioner and Father Mark didn’t know who it was but they posted an envelope through the presbytery door with £500 in cash for the crosses! Overall, we got something in excess of £850 from people who really believed in making sure when you walked into the school, you know you’re in a Catholic school.

‘We have a beautiful cross in the courtyard as well so can use that space for collective worship and reflection time,’ she adds. ‘It’s amazing the belief people have in us as a school to have made those contributions. It doesn’t matter whether it was £5 or £500 they believe in us.’ Belief which is certainly not misplaced as the transformation of this resilient and vibrant school shows.