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#Great Schools: The importance of good design

Hawkins\Brown’s Carol Lees and Sharon Wright of Creative Wit make the case for good school design

Schools should be more than just functional spaces, they should inspire. However, the government’s solution to the twin challenges of a shortage of school places and a crumbling school estate is based on cost rather the long-term value. This has marginalised design and will lead to greater problems for school estates in years to come.  Without architects’ involvement, school environments will be left to those with little appreciation of the positive effect good design can have. In this scenario, it is our children and teachers, who will miss out. Our driver for demanding better use of resource to improve our school building stock is to provide the best education we can for our children and future generations. It is our belief that you cannot effectively design a school building without fully grasping the education priorities, common bonds, sense of purpose and shared understanding that the school community holds dear.  Architects’ interrogative mindset makes them ideally placed to extract this knowledge and use it to create great learning environments.

The ‘school’

Schools are communities, not just buildings.  But what do we mean by community, and how then do we create the best possible building to house it?

Smith¹ (2001) looks at community in three ways:

‘Place’ as a geographical area where people have something in common;

‘Interest’ where people share a common characteristic such as religion, belief or ethnic origin; and

‘Communion’, which is a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea. 

These three strands clearly overlap in schools. The building and site provide the ‘place’ and this is often the image people have when they think of a school. But equally, the ‘interest’ element is about a common purpose and a commitment to delivering high-quality education and the ‘communion’ is a sense of belonging and identity that a school engenders in all those who work and learn there.

Schools are the places that convey the meaning and importance of learning. They could hardly be more important and correspondingly the role of excellent building design in improving schools should not be underestimated.

Quality of space

A well-proportioned classroom which has appropriate storage, with just the right amount of display, is flooded with natural light, has good acoustics, no glare, good air quality, a comfortable temperature, sufficient space to accommodate a range of activities for the right number of students (we could go on…) will improve educational outcomes.

In other areas of life quality of space is taken as a given – when we move house the first thing we do is personalise it to make it feel like home. Even Michael Gove, in his new role as justice minister, has publicly recognised that prison buildings influence their inmates’ behaviour (how ironic that his previous claim as education minister noted that a building did not make a school, rather the teachers did). 

In higher education there is recognition that attracting the best students requires investment in improving the quality of their teaching space. Similarly, the independent school sector is acting more like higher education institutions as they must compete against other fee paying facilities to ensure their survival. They recognise that quality of space is one important way to set them apart from their competitors.

Government policy is very ‘evidence’ heavy, requiring quantitative rather than qualitative assessment of space. However, the Holistic Evidence and Design project summary published earlier this year by Professor Peter Barrett and his team concluded that the physical characteristics of a classroom impacted the learning progress of pupils by up to 16%. This study builds on the conclusions of the earlier 2010 Schools Environments Survey, which showed school environments have a positive impact on pupil behaviour and wellbeing in addition to the teachers’ ability to teach effectively. Indeed 95.8% of the teachers agreed that the school environment had an influence on pupil behaviour.

The Education Funding Agency has taken a technical approach to addressing this through the development of baseline specifications (i.e. measurable quantities such as ventilation, daylight, acoustics, etc). However, the value of the architectural quality of space is not reflected.

Many factors contribute to raising educational attainment in schools with great teaching being the most critical. Yet the research evidence also shows that good learning environments play their part, supporting staff and students to give their best. The quality of space is more important than its simple provision.

The politics

The Education Acts of 1870 and 1902 (later bolstered by the 1944 Act) saw the introduction of state responsibility for compulsory education. Ever since, education has been a political football. The introduction of a National Curriculum in 1988 and the formation of Ofsted in 1992 was a manifestation of the government’s need to show it was in control of education. Today, schools are being encouraged to control their own curriculum, budgets and sites through the creation of academies and free schools, however they remain accountable through their performance in exam tables. While schools may appear quite different in their vision and ethos, most will be delivering a fairly narrow set of subjects in a fairly traditional way.

A school can rebrand, change status, merge, expand but its primary focus is always to educate. The good architect understands this and ensures that a shift in political emphasis from creative subjects (art, music, drama) to core ‘academic’subjects (maths, english, science, humanities) can be accommodated without having to knock the building down and start again – ideology and flexibility. 

Architects understand, for example, the need for enough small group rooms to accommodate an increasing cohort of children with english as an additional language or special educational needs. Similarly, form spaces and staff areas need to be of a significantly high quality so the school can continue to attract students and staff in an increasingly competitive market.

One area where schools have changed considerably is in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to aid teaching and support management. Technology is not simply a driver, but an enabler and a school building should be designed with it rather than around it. The use of ICT has created a different relationship between home, school and the wider community. It has enabled learning to take place anywhere and at any time – a fundamental principle of the Hellerup School in Copenhagen – whereby each child is given a laptop empowering them to undertake their education anywhere.

The pressure on schools to deliver is immense and it is inevitable that, with 24,000 schools in England, some will be flourishing, some will be managing, and some will be failing. This context is important because the funding and space allowance allocated to a school will not take account of where it is now and its future hopes. It will be for the architect to work with the school to understand the needs and aspirations to create spaces that work for the long term.

The ‘school project’

Although all schools generally have similar components, no two schools are exactly the same. ‘Distinctiveness’ arises from the ethos and estate rather than from the curriculum; it’s not what you learn but how you learn it.

In every project (not just schools) we must get the brief right at the outset to understand how each building is used and needs to perform. Architects are agile in their ability to work with clients and draw out this information to ensure the best solution is provided. Problem solving is what we are used to doing and is what we thrive on.

Within the education sector there are many variants. Funders vary – local authority, Academy Trust, individual school (independent and maintained), Education Funding Agency. Schools themselves vary – all age, SEN/primary/secondary, UTC, studio, faith. And the scale of projects vary – masterplanning, new build, refurbishment, small scale, standalone, as part of a mixed-use development.

But what is common among all school projects is that every venture needs to maximise scarce resources: more bang for your educational buck. And it is the ability of architects to make every project have a big impact, whether that be organisational change or cultural change, which is part of the process of re-thinking spaces.

Sharing the expertise

A school’s ability to adapt allows it to support a variety of teaching methods in the long term. In this regard, architects’ experience in other sectors can provide valuable lessons. Google, for example, has pushed the boundaries with their unique take on the traditional office, crafting spaces that promote collaboration and encourage creativity. All designed by prominent architects, the Google offices, or ‘playgrounds’, have an inherent playfulness and openness to create stimulating environments conducive to innovation. Architects are uniquely placed to apply this design knowledge to improve school design.

Equally important to the process is the client. By client we mean both the funders and the users who bring both political and operational expertise. Bringing everyone together allows learning from each other. The sum is greater than the individual parts.

There are many different types of school nowadays, all with similar standards required. However, the design thinking is entirely different with each model. Early involvement of an architect will allow utilisation of best practice, including learning from other sectors, to provide creative ways of developing school solutions for all types.

Lessons learned

We must learn lessons from completed schemes, no matter how big or small. Upon project completion lessons should be learned about the process through a Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE). Did it deliver what the client asked for?  Did they ask for the right things or, with hindsight, should they have briefed differently?  What do users think? Has it made a difference to the way they feel about their school? Has their education experience been enhanced by better quality space? These are questions which apply to all school projects.

It is our belief that POE should be a requirement for all, to collate our collective knowledge and ensure the industry learns from previous experience, both good and bad. The school estate itself is the longest-term player in this game, existing for longer than changes in staff, ideology and government, and so should be thought about in a longer timeframe. All children attend school for longer than a government is in power, and their educational experience often spans several changes in pedagogy and policy.

However, the chances are they will see only minimal change in their school’s built environment. It is important that design continues to grow and improve. Learning lessons from completed schemes is the most valuable way of influencing change and further enabling the architecture to support the education process.

So if schools are unique communities that will change and develop over time, architects are well positioned to provide the right environment within which they can flourish and grow. We just need the funding, procurement and design process to be flexible and forward-thinking enough to enable this on every project.

This article first appeared in the #Great Schools publication sponsored by Hawkins\Brown

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