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Reschooling Oldham: Aedas

[School design] Aedas’ four Oldham schools were among the last BSF schemes to escape the axe. The programme’s scale, budget and civic ambition are unlikely to be seen again. Greg Pitcher goes back to class

With modular building, standardisation and cost savings dominating education design today, it’s sometimes hard to believe Building Schools for the Future (BSF) ever existed.

Education secretary Michael Gove dropped the Labour government’s £55 billion estate renewal programme within weeks of coming to office in the summer of 2010.

Of the 1,200 BSF projects, nearly 700 collapsed - some never to be seen again, others resuscitated as cheaper, smaller alternatives without the bells and whistles.

Yet a few lucky schemes, that had advanced far enough, were quietly allowed to continue.

In Oldham, four Aedas-designed schools with what is now a gasp-inducing combined budget of £100 million are starting to fill with pupils.

‘These projects represent a moment in time,’ says Aedas director Tony Langan. ‘You will not see schools of this ilk for many a year.

‘BSF was flabby, there were too many hangers-on and it was cumbersome for contractors. But it was a grand project and as architects we love that kind of thing.’

Aedas teamed up with Balfour Beatty for the Newman Roman Catholic College BSF project, and with Willmott Dixon for three academy jobs at the same time.

These academies - for sponsors Oldham College, Oasis and E-ACT - were procured through Partnerships for Schools’ (PfS) contractors’ framework. With Labour’s PfS quango also in charge of BSF, they benefited from the programme’s expansive ethos.

Aedas’ four schools were an integral part of a plan not only to transform educational attainment in Oldham, but to mend a fractured community. The backdrop to the projects’ conception included the race riots of the early 21st century and areas of grinding depravation.

‘A key criteria for getting to the top of the queue for BSF funding was the volume of free school meals,’ says Langan, who was born in the town and attended one of the schools that Aedas replaced. ‘Oldham has some of the poorest boroughs in Europe.’

To aid social healing, schools were moved from existing sites to strategically chosen locations.

Oldham College’s Waterhead Academy, for example, was placed where it would bring together previously sparring white and Asian working class communities from the mainly white Counthill and predominately Asian Breeze Hill areas.

Newman College replaced two catholic schools. ‘This relocation made the sites quite hard to develop,’ says Langan. ‘Waterhead was an old mill site with a culvert running through it. Oasis had a right of way that had to be maintained throughout construction.’

The exteriors of the schools were important, and Aedas worked to give them as much prominence as possible within the town.
The Oasis Academy is built with an illuminated facade that can be seen from Manchester city centre. Newman College looms large on the main road that links the M60 with the M62. ‘People will see that something is happening in Oldham,’ says Langan. ‘We wanted to reinvigorate the presence of the town itself.’

The next step was to create schools that children would want to attend.‘If you don’t get kids through the front door, then they aren’t going to learn anything,’ says Langan. ‘Truancy is a major problem and you have to give pupils the desire to turn up.’

Lessons learned

Social areas were key to the design of all four schools; the philosophy was to attract children to school to see friends and hang out. Various common spaces were created to bring people together. Open-plan interiors were used, along with plenty of glass, to create a sense of togetherness.

A further challenge was encouraging parents, who historically often had troubled relationships with the school their children attended, to lower their guard.

‘Encouraging parents is one of the big things you can do,’ says Langan. ‘We looked at it the way you would a business. Parents are the clients and you try to make them feel comfortable and welcome. That meant open reception areas, cups of coffee and internet access rather than forbidding doors and shutters.’

When it came to creating learning spaces, Aedas was keen not to let technological advances crowd out other forms of learning. Computers increased in quantity and quality but so did flexible teaching opportunities.

‘BSF was overloaded with technology,’ says Langan. ‘I’ve seen high-performing schools in New York that use bedsheets nailed to the wall for teaching. ‘Every child learns differently and you have to tailor teaching to the individual.’

Aedas created rooms that could be opened up or closed in at will, so teachers could create large or small spaces depending on the lesson and the class. Balconies and covered outdoor spaces gave further, accessible options for changing the mood of a lesson.

‘To engage pupils, teachers need to be able to think on their feet,’ said Langan. ‘They need all the armoury they can get.’
The practice visited schools as far apart as Scandanavia, Australia and Thailand to hone its vision for Oldham’s secondary education estate. It picked up lessons from all those places, but ultimately tailored its designs to the specific needs of the individual schools and the town as a whole.

Three of the four schools have opened their doors to pupils since September, with E-ACT’s Oldham Academy North to open after Christmas.

Pupils moving from one lesson to the next this winter are unlikely to pause to reflect that they are standing in buildings that are at once brand new yet strangely historic. And though it is too early to gauge whether the schools will quickly achieve their lofty aims, these buildings - unlike their prefabricated predecessors thrown up in the 1950s and 1960s buildings - have been designed to last.

Labour councillor Hugh MacDonald, cabinet member for education and safeguarding who was involved with Oldham’s initial £200 million BSF bid said: ‘These beautiful schools will easily last for 60 years. I don’t think I will be around to see them replaced.

‘They don’t look flimsy, even though there is lots of glass. It all seems long-lasting stuff. They are well-proportioned, well-designed and adaptable.’

For MacDonald each of the new schools is ‘iconic’, providing ‘loads of room for the kids to breathe in’. He concluded: ‘I wouldn’t change anything about the BSF programme, only that it should have been left to run to its end. In 12 months the programme would have finished in Oldham and we’d have gained so much value. [This country] doesn’t do long-term thinking. ‘

Indeed, it is likely to be a long time before architects are given such an opportunity to use school design to benefit an entire community again.

A teacher’s view

Liz Mitchell, deputy head teacher at Newman Roman Catholic College

We were chosen for BSF funding because we represented the population of Oldham. We had to think of a totally different way of teaching children.

We are already beginning to see the effects of using different ways of engaging children.

If one thing from BSF can be taken into the new era it is that…. social spaces are important. [In our school] pupils feel they are being given a privilege.

Also, creating flexibility through operable walls or other barriers means you can have six children working or 100 listening to a teacher. Teachers have to realise that standing at the front for 50 minutes is not the only way to teach.

We have winter gardens where pupils can do physical activities without getting hot and bothered. We can hold classes in busy central spaces while people are walking past because the acoustics are good.

It is important to have a member of staff with an understanding of learning involved in the design process. Otherwise you will get someone else’s idea of what a school should be like.

Our teachers went to Holland and were impressed by the use of glass that allows staff to passively calm children down just by being visible. Our school is all open-plan and the children would not contemplate trying anything they wouldn’t do in any public arena. Behaviour is a lot better as a result.

We also had children come on to the site during the building process to contribute their ideas. We have stained glass windows in the school that were designed by the children.

The pupils don’t appreciate how state-of-the-art it all is, but they like the computers and being able to see open spaces. Overall, they love the new school.’

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