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Steering a course for change in education

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Tomorrow's Architect, published by the RIBA this week, outlines the syllabuses and validation process for courses in architecture. Here John Lyall, chair of the validation task force, describes the challenge of reaching agreement between the ARB and RIBA and outlines the main areas of change

Just over two years ago we were asked by the RIBA to reassess the validation requirements for courses of architecture that desire recognition by the institute. 'We' were a working party comprising a lively mixed bag of architects, students, heads of schools and academics, some of whom were also there to represent the Architects Registration Board.

Our mission was to produce a set of criteria for Parts 1 and 2, which could be agreed jointly by the ARB and RIBA.

The RIBA reviews its criteria for validation every five years, and rightly so. However, for us on the working party, this was a major review and a rethink of how the standards are presented. I suppose I should not have been surprised that the process took a year longer than the original six months we had envisaged. For all sorts of reasons there was an 'uncomfortable' relationship between the ARB and RIBA at the time, and many heads of schools under the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture (SCHOSA) banner were expressing strong concerns about the future, with the RIBA and ARB carrying out joint or separate validations.

From darkness into light

While our group had spent a creative and happy few months on drafting, consultation, and redrafting, suddenly it all seemed to be going horribly wrong, with disagreements from SCHOSA, criticisms of confidential work-in-progress drafts mysteriously appearing in the press and, worst of all, the ARB now saying it wished to work to, and publish, its own criteria.

I felt like giving up - however passionately I feel about education, I have a business to run. But so much good and careful work had been achieved by my colleagues, it would have been a crime to waste it. It would also be a sad indictment of our profession if we could not rise above the politics of institutions and academia to serve our students and future architects with words of clarity and common sense.

Fortunately, this view was shared by Larry Rolland and Ian Davidson representing the ARB, together with Jack Pringle, who all worked with me at the 11th hour to refocus and edit the criteria wording. I am indebted to all three of them. The joint validation criteria were then soon approved by the ARB board and the RIBA Council. The final results were also well-received by the heads of schools. At last, a good news story.

A new era and a new audience

In published form, the work we had done would replace the RIBA's green book of validation criteria; an earnest but rather dreary read, which had been in use for some years.

So unappealing was the old document that when I asked a number of students and teachers whether they had ever read it, most replied that they knew of its existence but had never seen a copy.

Here was an opportunity not only to set down the basic validation criteria, but also to describe the variety of ways they could be applied in courses and integrated together.

Illustrations, personal comments and narrative about the energy and richness of architectural education have been added to make Tomorrow's Architect a testament to our courses in the 21st century. It is also an excellent primer and five-year guidebook for any student embarking on an architectural course. I hope every student is given a copy when they arrive at college - I wish I had received one all those years ago. It shows them what they are in for.

It is written in plain nglish - not 'academicese' or architectural jargon. Any career adviser or parent should enjoy reading it and understand exactly what an aspiring young architect has to go through.

Increasingly, the government is interested in design and the education of architects. To ministers and officials this is a no-nonsense guide, which reminds them that architecture is complex, socially beneficial and environmentally important. It reminds them that our discipline is light years away from just 'building', and needs their political support.

The education and training of architects is unique in having project-based learning at its core at every stage of the course. The idiosyncrasies of such a system do not entitle those involved to only discuss education standards among themselves. Economic, social and environmental pressures are making governments and commerce ask questions of the world of architecture. We have to justify our relevance and speak clearly about the benefits of good design.

And so it should be.

Our schools, our students

I find it quite amazing that the RIBA validates not only nearly 40 courses in the UK, but also in excess of 50 architectural schools in many different cultures overseas. Year by year, more universities - from South America to the Far East - request RIBA validation visits. As you read Tomorrow's Architect, please be aware of the growing international 'family' of very different architecture schools that will also apply our criteria within their own cultural framework.

The criteria for validation are deliberately not prescriptive, because, above all, the RIBA cherishes the rich diversity of every course of architecture and the fact that universities respond to surpassing the standards in such different ways.

This publication is divided into the validation requirements for Part 1 (years one to three), those for Part 2 (years four to five) - where a greater degree of knowledge and aptitude have to be displayed by the student - and Part 3, which focuses on the skills of professional practice.

Not all students who complete Part 1 have the desire to go further, or aim to be practising architects. The RIBA wishes in this publication to endorse the achievement of Part 1 as a valuable educational asset or degree subject, which will help students as they progress towards another career. There should never be a perceived stigma about not completing a five-year course. It is our experience as architects that three years of architectural training enables some individuals to become extremely good and informed clients for the design profession.

Simply stated, the book lays down what we believe are suitable achievable criteria and gives guidance on achieving them.

Eventually, assessments are made on the work output of students. This is encapsulated in an individual's academic portfolio, which is built up over five years. In quality terms, this should speak for itself.

The core of the document, and indeed its main purpose, is to set down the benchmark for passing the Part 1, 2 and 3 examinations in architecture, as administered by the RIBA.

However, it could be a rather dreary read if we just concentrated on the quality of the lowest pass. As we know, the vast majority of students produce work of a far higher calibre.

For this reason, we have expanded the document to give more of the flavour and atmosphere of architectural education and actual student work, in the hope that both aspirations and spirits will be raised.

For years it has been an annoying habit of a few professional architects of the 'it's not what it was like in my day' variety to be vocal and critical of schools and the abilities of their graduates. I would like to register my personal admiration for most schools in the UK today and for the calibre of dedicated students working for five years in constrained financial circumstances. In the past few years running a busy office, I have had no complaints about the level of experience of our Part 1 and Part 2 graduates. To quote Penny Richards of Pringle Richards Sharatt: 'Students are much more competent and professional today.'

So what's new?

What are the differences in the new validation criteria document, apart from its design, which makes it more accessible?

For a start, the actual criteria are less wordy and more focussed than before. They are drafted in such a way as to follow the variety of individual courses, rather than placing constraints to comply in only one fashion. In this way, there is less prescription.

There is more emphasis than before on designing within a sustainable environment and in a construction context where the role of the architect varies and buildings get built in increasingly different ways. The growing role of the computer, and necessary abilities with CAD and information technology generally, is naturally reflected. I am pleased, however, that we are still waving an important flag for the ability to draw by hand.

We have also tried to ensure great emphasis in the requirements for the technical and cultural outputs that the work is integrated with studio design projects.

During the consultation process, there were some concerned heads of schools who felt greater depth in 'new' areas, such as sustainability, would overstretch their staff and budgets by having to create new course areas. I understand the worries but I feel strongly that, just as any practising architect has to get up to speed with changing requirements in the outside world in his or her own time or within a practice framework, so all design tutors and technical tutors should only be employed if they have up-to-date knowledge and awareness.

These words 'knowledge' and 'awareness' are very important. In Tomorrow's Architect they are often used to distinguish the expected basic outputs for Part 1 and Part 2 levels. To avoid any confusion, we actually define these words and any other key phraseology.

Responsibility

In creating this book we spent not only a great deal of time with teachers and education advisers, but particularly with students and architects. I hope we listened well and readers find that, while not everything on their wish list may be there, the publication at least improves their situation. For me, the purpose of this document is the betterment of architecture and the quality of design. Secondly, it is for students. The RIBA has a fantastic education department led by Leonie Milliner and is fortunate to have a passionately education-oriented president in Paul Hyett.

I hope Tomorrow's Architect serves the students well and that the RIBA continues to show leadership in looking after them.

For all those architects in practice who may still be confused or concerned about what goes on in our schools, I can only suggest you get more involved with your nearest college. Don't pontificate from the sidelines.

You should be pleasantly surprised at how much commitment and quality is evident in a context that is very different from when you went to school.

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