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In the run-up to the general election, the state of the country's schools will once again be a key vote-winning issue, and a new set of initiatives and manifestos will encourage architects to be more enterprising when designing for the educational environ

Once, in the good old, bad old, days, we all knew the products that were used in our schools. Every school looked rather alike, with an institutional feel that aroused either a sense of nostalgia or distaste in returning adults, depending on how good or bad their schooldays were. Now, with initiatives such as Building Schools for the Future and the City Academies, the emphasis is very much on change, and breaking away from stale ideas.

A project like Foster's Bexley City Academy, with its belief that the design of a building can infl uence behaviour, echoes the recent CABE Space report. Where CABE was suggesting that mixing pedestrians and drivers would ensure that drivers are more careful and go more slowly, similarly Foster's breaking down of walls is intended to encourage students to behave more quietly so as not to interrupt classes.

Now, in addition to architects being encouraged to think imaginatively when designing schools for the future, the RIBA's Manifesto for Architecture also tackles school design. This manifesto, intended to influence the parties in the run-up to the general election, allocates its 20 proposals to four headings. Under one of these, 'Better neighbourhoods - designing for sustainability', it includes: 'Make every school a demonstration project for sustainability. Include at least one low or zero-energy section in all new or refurbished schools.' So with all these new initiatives and pressures, is the idea of building products that are designed specifically for schools ridiculously outdated? No, it isn't. Sales of institutional green paint may be dropping, but there are other concerns, both perennial and more recent, which will influence specification.

Ironmongery is one issue, as it has to be able to withstand exceptionally hard treatment. Acoustic materials are another, with worries about children being able to hear in classes. With increasing emphasis on the importance of natural daylighting, shading solutions will have a growing role, as will methods of bringing light into deep space. Worries about allergies, especially with the growing prevalence of childhood asthma, affect the choice of materials. And once you look at primary schools, you also get into the areas of specialist sanitaryware and furniture.

Money is another issue. In this month's theme on education buildings (pages 3037), Adam Wardle of Associated Architects explains that although private schools are seen as very privileged, in terms of building budgets they are often as cash-strapped as the public sector.

City Academies may look particularly attractive because they have benefited from generous budgets but in general terms the fi nancial allocation per square metre for schools is unlikely to rise significantly.

And PFI imposes its own disciplines, both good and bad. On the down side, there is the tendency to drive costs as low as possible. On the positive side of the scale, maintenance and cost in use becomes a key consideration.

For all these reasons, there is still likely to be a palette of materials that architects working in this field will want to use and use again.

The buildings may become more varied and experimental, but that is no reason not to have some trusty workhorses acting as components within them.

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