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Theme: education buildings

After decades of under-investment, the government has finally recognised the role that quality buildings play in education. Now, new guidance frameworks are to offer architects advice on how to help raise the standards of our schools

In 1999, a study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) showed clear evidence that the performance of pupils and teachers, as well as the retention of staff, was proportionally linked to the capital investment per pupil. Since then, improving education has become a key government policy and society is expecting results.

The focus is not on school buildings, but on transforming the way education is delivered and raising educational standards.

After decades of under-investment, the scale of the task is unprecedented and can only be realised through collaboration between the public and private sector.

Key issues that will shape the school of the future are as follows:

l blurring the school boundaries and the concept of lifelong learning by providing family and community facilities: siting the school as the centre of the community;

new ways of learning: particularly the impact of Information and Communications Technology (ICT);

the changing curriculum: special status schools, academies, the promotion of vocational training and the role of classroom assistants;

inclusion: providing excellence for all children regardless of disability, background or needs;

design quality and sustainability;

flexibility to deliver the curriculum today and in the future.

These objectives have been further promoted by new and revised Building Bulletins (produced by the DfES), most recently BB99 and BB98 - Briefing Frameworks for Secondary and Primary Schools respectively. These documents are designed to assist building designers and stake-holders in the creation of a design brief, with particular emphasis on the following issues:

l Part A: Creating a brief - and how it should fit within a strategic masterplan based on the school's longer term vision for the future;

l Part B: The key design criteria that should be included in the brief to ensure that facilities are appropriate and flexible for the changing circumstances of the future;

l Part C: Minimum building area requirements for the usable or net area, and for the remaining area of the buildings;

l Part D: Minimum site requirements for the various categories of outdoor spaces needed within the playing field area or net site area. (All these briefing frameworks supersede BB82).

Other recent changes/additions are BB93 'Acoustic Design of Schools' and BB87 (Second Edition) 'Environmental Design in Schools', as well as bulletins covering BB80 - 'Science Accommodation' and BB81 'Design & Technology'.

Inspiration for the 21st century school can be found in BB95, which promotes good design along the lines encouraged by CABE, such as minimising environmental impact and achieving the targets of Rethinking Construction, including improved delivery and better value for money.

Guidance to national standards on earlyyears education, nurseries and children's centres is covered by various publications produced by Ofsted. But there are a number specific acts and statutory instruments that also govern the design of school buildings.

These include:

the Children's Act;

Education (school premises) Regulations 1999;

Disabled Discrimination Act 1995;

the Building Regulations.

During the leaner periods of investment in state schools, Associated Architects worked extensively in the independent school sector. It was here that we learned important lessons in designing exciting learning environments for children. While the prescriptive standards and guidelines are not always applicable to the independent sector, many of their principles have been regarded as best practice for some time.

Other aspects are of reduced significance as the curriculum is delivered differently and will vary from school to school; class sizes are smaller and more speciality subjects are taught. Ultimately, one should also be mindful that school buildings in the independent sector must contribute towards the marketing of the school to prospective parents.

There are lessons that the state and independent sectors can learn from each other:

The state sector's investment in ICT and promotion of good design quality is generally raising the level of expectation, and higher attainment levels should be achieved as result. The independent sector will have raised its game accordingly to continue to attract pupils. Borderline parents, who have recently relied upon the independent sector, may look twice when the alternative is a new, special-status school or learning academy.

The independent sector is keen to take the longer-term view and it can predict revenue and plan for the future development of the school. Projects are often planned years in advance and executed according to a phased masterplan. Low-energy and sustainable design and are more easily justified against whole-life payback periods.

The benefits of partnering are well understood in the independent sector. Associated Architects has enjoyed long-standing relationships with many of its independent school clients over several decades. This has resulted in a consistent design approach and greater coherence in campus planning.

Contrary to most people's preconceptions, budgets are often tighter in the independent school sector and have to be spread thinner, resulting in more refurbishment/remodelling projects. There is also a recognition that schools, like cities, need old buildings as well as new.

Not only is the history of the school embodied in its older building, but these also often allow a greater diversity of use. The re-use of buildings is the most sustainable form of development. However, in the state sector the drive is often towards wholesale reconstruction.

Competition within the independent sector has healthy spin-offs, including the promotion of design innovation and highquality landscape solutions.

The concept of designing state schools as centres for the community provides not only a range of facilities, but also engenders stronger links between pupils, parents, teachers and the local community.

Finally, the concepts of specialist schools and academies, and the promotion of greater autonomy, are giving state schools a sense of individuality similar to that enjoyed by independent schools. In time it is hoped that this will lead to greater choice for parents and pupils.

Designing a school building is a unique opportunity and we are always conscious that the resulting environment will have a profound impact upon the education and imagination of thousands of young people throughout its life. The design guidelines and standards provide only the framework for the creative process. While they are essential, they are no substitute for working with the pupils, staff, school governors, the local community and the local education authority. Between them, they offer the ingredients for shaping the school design unique to that community.

Adam Wardle is a director at Associated Architects

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