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Architects could teach the government a thing or two about school design

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If the test of a nation is how it treats children, meanness in school design doesn’t bode well

The AJ was named IBP Magazine of the Year this week, the first time it has received this honour in the 32-year history of the award. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the whole AJ team for its hard work and determination in renewing the health of this title over the last two years. Also thanks to the greater AJ family - our advertisers, sponsors, supporters and subscribers.

The award comes at a time where, as editors, we are seeking a renewed purpose for the AJ as a lobbying force on behalf of architects, representing the voice of the profession, galvanising your collective views and instigating change through our campaigns.

In this week’s issue, we focus on school design to mark a moment in time. As the last of the original BSF and academy stock complete, we are seeing the product of the most ambitious school building programme in more than a century. At the same time, a shift in government policy, beginning with Michael Gove’s BSF rant in 2010, is culminating in the slashing of education budgets and the release of new standardised templates.

‘If you have shares in atriums, sell,’ said Peter Lauener, chief executive of the government’s Education Funding Agency in September, publicly shaming architects for ‘fripperies’ in schools even though the true villain in the BSF debacle was wasteful government procurement.

His was ridiculous rhetoric, as flexible space is not frippery - it’s efficient. The introduction of hubs and break-out spaces not only responded to the latest research in optimised learning, it also enabled the building to be used in different ways, and subsidised by community use. Lecture halls, canteens and atriums meant schools could be used for events, community gatherings, even press conferences - such as Gove’s famous speech at Westminster Academy.

BSF school designs also reflected an activity-based approach to teaching which, like office design, had been proven to improve learning outcomes. As education specialist and former RIBA president Sunand Prasad points out in his introduction to this issue, what we are seeing now is a return to the old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching, as well as the austerity pressure to build for less than £1,450/m². As Prasad notes, ‘the target cost is not in itself the problem; a smarter design, construction and property industry could achieve it. What we have instead is a squeeze on areas, quality of fabric and materials.’

If the test of a nation is how it treats its children, the quality of our schools reflects its social morality. The London riots taught the dangers of a disenfranchised youth. As Michál Cohen of school specialists Walters & Cohen notes in her interview, 10 years ago the schools being commissioned reflected the latest research. Now they reveal a move away from the education of children toward the bottom line.

It is troubling to see architects ignored for their valuable contribution to education over the last decade. Practices such as AHMM, Penoyre & Prasad, Nicholas Hare, Sheppard Robson, Jestico + Whiles and Walters & Cohen have worked at the vanguard of school design, making great strides in the quest for a better learning environment. They could teach the government a thing or two.

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