School Halls Program – A user’s opinion

So our biggest national tour of our year is over – Book Week 2010. The shows themselves were a huge success, I think some of our best work ever, but our experience with the spaces we performed in was perhaps less than perfect.

You may have heard a lot in the news about the “School Halls Program” and the bungles that have ensued. But here is our firsthand account of the program from a company who have just seen over 100 of the projects in action.

Let me start by stipulating that some of halls are good, some of them were needed and some of them are finished (golf clap now), but let’s talk about the others.

Completion dates missed: A huge amount of the halls are behind schedule. Many schools are booking events like our theatre shows then having to relocate to smaller less appropriate areas (like double classrooms) because their buildings just aren’t ready as promised. The problems with performing in classrooms is purely that you have to evict the students for half a day so that their space can be cleared, the event set up, performed, packed up then their class reinstated. This is a big hassle for staff & students who are frequently being displaced.

Like the teachers and students, for our performers this meant we were constantly trying to unload equipment through construction sites. These were the hardest bump-ins to spaces that we’ve ever encountered. Many schools have all of their vehicle entrances & exits blocked off by the construction companies. This means where we usually may have been able to drive our van right up to a hall to unload staging, sound equipment and sets, we now have to walk it in from the road or a carpark at the other end of the school. This often resulted in up to 150 meters of walking with each load of equipment, sometimes up to 6 loads of equipment for each performer. Thankfully many of the schools were kind enough to send students to help in these occasions but yet again it just shouldn’t be happening. Were the projects finished on schedule it wouldn’t need to.

Design: The inconvenience aside, let’s have a look at the buildings themselves. Many people seem to think that the halls are all built off a template whereby most of the schools would have similar or identical halls. This seems like a brilliant idea to me in that materials would be cheaper being bought in bulk, design costs would be reduced, and with the money saved they could do something else that the school needs. But in my discussions with several tradies who have been working on these programs there is money being wasted everywhere. Some halls are doing tens of thousands of dollars of “extras” that do little or nothing to improve the actual space. It seems that many of the companies have been given a budget and they are going to spend it by hook or by crook, whether it’s in the interest of the school or not.

At this point it is important to note the purpose of a school hall. My belief (which seems to be shared by most of the staff I spoke to) is that a hall is generally used for assemblies & performances. In some cases it also is used as a sporting area. However there are two key areas that most of the designers failed to think of – acoustics and access.

Acoustics: Of the new spaces we did perform in (those that were finished) only one or two had halfway decent acoustics. Most of them had high ceilings & hard floors with sound bouncing around in all directions. The more we turned up our sound system, the worse it got. I only saw a couple of spaces that had any sort of sound boards in the walls or ceilings. This means that schools struggle to use the halls for the very purpose that they were built. The schools are now going to be forced to purchase rugs to roll out on the floors to soak up some of the echo and I wouldn’t be surprised if many have to start covering the walls in anything they can lay their hands on so that their assemblies & performances are not just an echoing mess where no one can hear what is being said.

Access: On the whole this is a disaster. I can’t believe how many of these “state of the art” buildings have just single doors! SINGLE DOORS!!! The halls from the 1950’s had double doors, but not half of these new buildings. Getting our equipment through a single door is possible but gee it’s hard, and many of them were surrounded by glass so one misguided movement with a trolley would mean disaster. Can you imagine trying to file in 400 kids for assembly through single doors. You’ve got it, it takes twice as long. What a disaster. I was amazed that many of the new halls also don’t have ramps. Perhaps they don’t have any students in wheelchairs…. yet. Our trolleys were lugged up many a stair this season, and as the halls are all new it looks like that will be our lot into the future. Simple rule of thumb. When building a hall, the designers need to imagine that the school needs to wheel an upright piano into it once a week. It will give them a whole new perspective on where to build the driveway for close vehicle access, creating double doors and ramps. This is not just for companies like us, but for the DJ at primary school discos, the art committee who want to bring their paintings in for a display, basically any major activity run in a school hall.

Many schools don’t want the hall: Lots of the schools I visited already had halls. When I looked at their current hall it was usually (but not always) in good repair and generally served the purposes they needed it for. Many teachers indicated that they felt the same and that the new hall was a waste of money that could be used for several other projects in their school that needed funding- Arts programs (so they could book more shows & put on their own performances), more computers, new playground equipment, more sporting equipment, library upgrades and new books, and one I frequently heard was more staff. What better stimulus could there be than employing more staff to teach, more teacher aids and assistants to help, more maintenance staff to improve the rooms, yards & gardens, more admin staff to run the school.

These are few of the most ludicrous things: These are the most ridiculous instances that just had us scratching our heads in disbelief.

1. The worst was one school who debated for 15 minutes when we got there over which space we would use – the gym or their brand new Arts building. We were sent to the gym. The Phys Ed teacher who had his students in the gym told us to go away and use the new building that had been built for performances and I must say I agreed with him whole heartedly. Regardless the Principal tried again to move the Phys Ed students out of the gym so that we could perform in there. Again he refused and the maintenance staff member guided us down to the new Arts centre. Wow!!! What a space. They actually had a ramp (hooray) and a huge foyer, then a humongous hall behind that with seating for at least 400. We only had the Preps coming in that day so we asked to use the ample sized foyer. The acoustics were better than the hall itself and the space suited our needs. Once we were set up the Principal caught wind of where we were and called the maintenance man to tell us to pack up & move to the gym, regardless of the sport teacher who refused to move. Luckily our maintenance guy was a good old fella and he told the Principal it was too late and that we’d just have to press on. We did the show, the kids loved it, the access was fantastic, the acoustics superb, even power points on both sides of the room (a rarity). So why didn’t the principal want us there? After the show I asked our friend, Mr Maintenance and he told us. The new facility had been opened in April and this was the first time the school had used it since that opening. It was now early September. The reason? A deal had been done with the government. The construction of the larger than usual facility had only been funded by the government on the proviso that local community groups could share it with the school. As such, whoever used the facility had to pay for heating then cleaning the space after each event. Surely that couldn’t cost that much, could it? After the government had spent over a million dollars of taxpayer money to build the facility, the Principal wasn’t willing to pay for it to be cleaned or heated. I was amazed. The maintenance guy pulled out his vacuum, ran over the space as we left & it was clean in five minutes. I asked him how much that cost the school. He said he was fulltime so it cost them nothing but his time. The heater was never turned on. As a taxpayer I felt ripped off. I wonder how the parents feel?

2. Number two was the school who had just opened their huge brand new building which was very late so they were just thrilled to have access – not that anyone else did. Single doors of glass, 20 steps down from the carpark and no ramp. Then inside it was a barn: high ceilings, hard floor and a world of echo ensued. Their stage was the lowlight. It was built into the wall cavity, was too small for any more than 15 students to stand on (so useless for any student theatre, singing groups, etc, as the school had a large enrollment) and because it was set into the wall it was impossible to light. I asked where the lighting rig was and was told, “That will be the next project when we can afford it”. The reality was they were never going to be able to light the stage effectively as there had been no allowance for a lighting rig. It would have to lower down from the ceiling at least 15 meters which would blow out the price, or would have to be bolted onto the front of the stage hanging out. It just wasn’t going to work & clearly hadn’t been thought through. The only solution will be angled downlights within the stage cavity (just a meter above your head), hardly a theatrical success story. In ensuring that they had a big space for sport they had completely fouled up the ability for anyone to be seen on stage. Needless to say, we didn’t use it. Our lights would have had to sit in front of the students for us to be seen. This was by far the worst designed room we saw and I feel for the staff & students who will discover its limitations as they settle in.

3. The final disaster was the school that had a huge hall with big stage but the worst acoustics we came across. The high ceilings & hard floor seemed to combine to create the worst echo you could imagine. We had to perform our script about twice as slow as we usually would, just so it could be understood. The funny part was when the school gave us the feedback after the show that they had loved everything about our show except that the echo made it very difficult to understand our song lyrics (which couldn’t be slowed down). I think they thought this was our fault but as they had their own first school production happening in there the next week, I’m sure they now realize that anything with any faster tempo is going to be lost in that space. The only solution will be to cover the glass walls in sound deadening coverings to try to soak up some of the echo.

On the whole I think the “Schools Hall Program” is a joke and a costly one at that. Tax payer money is hemorrhaging down the drain, construction completion dates are late and the halls themselves don’t work in several key areas. This isn’t the case at every school, but our experience was that it is the case at a great many of them. If only the government had taken some time to plan the projects more carefully they may have found that many schools didn’t even want the halls and that the money could have been spent on more worthwhile projects that were actually needed and that could still stimulate the economy. If a hall was needed then perhaps consulting with community groups & especially performance groups like us could have helped to get acoustics and access right.

We’re all stuck with these halls now but I’ll watch with interest over the new few years to see how they are altered to meet student, staff & visitor’s needs.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.