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Coronavirus: Can primary schools adapt to a post-lockdown world?


What role will design play in helping schools to manage a phased post-Covid return of pupils, potentially as early as 1 June? The AJ talks to architects who specialise in education about practical solutions 

The government wants primary schools to begin reopening their doors early next month following the national lockdown. The announcement, part of a ‘conditional’ plan to reopen society, was made by the prime minister yesterday (10 May).

Reception (aged 4-5), Year 1 (aged 5-6) and Year 6 pupils (aged 10-11) will be the return to first - the move will allow Year 6 to prepare for their move to secondary school in September.

But primary school life will not be the same as before, certainly not in the short-term. Headteachers will need to consider how to maintain social distancing and improve hygiene to keep pupils safe. Some of the answers may lie in design, others in how school timetables and teaching programmes are redrawn.

’Schools are already thinking about [these issues] in an atomised way and starting to draft their school specific plans,’ says Mark Rowe, principal at Penoyre & Prasad, which was bought last year by Perkins and Will. ’[But] although these school specific solutions will be key, they are desperate for national government advice based upon the best possible current scientific assumptions and knowledge.

’It’s also critical that this advice lands with enough time for implementation before any return to school.’

A widely-suggested initial step will be for all schools to shrink class sizes to between 12 and 15 pupils.

As dRMM founding director Philip Marsh says, this could be done by introducing alternating ‘in’ days so daily pupil numbers ’are significantly reduced and pupil movements to and from school are limited’.

However Marsh, whose team has been working on the soon-to-complete Wintringham Primary Academy near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, admits: ’This would be less popular in primary schools as parents would have to provide childcare when their children were not in school.’

Helen Roberts, a partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, agrees that a staggered return with fewer pupils in school would be a sensible first step and ’not so difficult to implement’.

St peters catholic primary school gloucester  copyright craig aukland

St Peter’s Catholic Primary School, Gloucester by FCBS copyright craig aukland

Source: Craig Auckland

St Peter’s Catholic Primary School, Gloucester by FCBS

She adds: ’It may require one class to be spread over two rooms, or for children to take it in turns to come to school for a morning or an afternoon - and a building that is not fully occupied with other years will afford at least some short-term spatial planning opportunities – staff availability and numbers allowing of course.’

Other immediate changes could follow those seen in supermarkets, such as one-way systems. Rowe suggests that smaller classes and their teacher could be set up as ’socially-isolated pods’ within which a ’degree of transmission risk was acceptable’.

But what happens when all children return to school?

Roberts says: ’As my 10 year old pointed out, there would need to be twice as many classrooms, and twice as many teachers, to make social-distancing work in his primary school. That’s not going to happen by 1 June, or indeed ever.

’The fact that the government ”guidelines” on area provision for all schools have only reduced with every recent revision of the Building Bulletins, to keep investment to an absolute minimum, means there is little room to play with in any school in the very best of circumstances - unless it is hugely undersubscribed - let alone when teachers and children are all recommended to be 2m away from each other because of a pandemic.’

Sue Emms, a principal at BDP, thinks the likelihood of schools reducing densities by adding extra space is slim and that any longer-term resolution of ‘space deficits’ will depend on government cash. She says: ’Additional space could be provided by ”bolt-on” modular temporary classrooms but, given the amount required, is this really a feasible solution for all schools across the country?’

She suggests ’more radical opportunities’ should be considered, for example using or repurposing other underused spaces within local communities.

She adds: ’[Could] the infant section of a primary school move and be set up in community centres, public libraries, village halls, leisure centres or places of worship? This too will have challenges and will need careful thought in resolving WC provision, safeguarding issues and external play space.’

Tom Coward, a director at AOC Architecture, a father of two and the husband of a deputy head of a primary school, agrees that ’bolt on’ classrooms will not be the solution.

He says: ’To reduce infection risk schools need to reduce density and there is no space or money to double the space standards currently afforded short term, or likely long term.

’So what are the options for a London primary school on a tight site? Initial thoughts are about continuing to use the new infrastructure just gained - the virtual classroom. In a pupil-centred learning culture there is much to be gained in continuing to use tailored home learning for some of the curriculum.’

He adds: ’Schools are probably initially considering half days for pupils - half-sized classes in full-sized classrooms - with teachers teaching half the content face-to-face twice, and the other half delivered to laptops and desktops around the school catchment area.’

Clth existingclassrooms

A graphic by Curl La Tourelle Head showing how existing classrooms would have to be rearranged to meet the 2m social distancing rules

A graphic by Curl La Tourelle Head showing how existing classrooms would have to be rearranged to meet the 2m social distancing rules

Another issue schools will have to tackle when pupils return is the free-for-all drop-off. As Marsh says: ’Parents are working in high-risk areas such as hospitals and then congregating together outside the schools and failing to observe safe social distancing. So it is important when schools re-open that they ensure measures extend to managing parents at drop-off and collection.’

This may mean staggered pick-up by year group or learning pod, with arrivals and departures arranged through wider gates - such as at the entrance to car parks - rather than the usual narrow openings.

One bigger idea for future learning is a move towards the principles of ‘forest school’ teaching. This Scandinavian concept of outdoor learning is backed by Marsh, who says schools should increase ’learning in the landscape or through outdoor classroom’ and that ‘the time children spend outside at all times of the year should be encouraged’.

Tom Waddicor, an associate at Maccreanor Lavington, also believes playgrounds and exterior space will become ’ever more valuable in schools’ and sees it as an opportunity ’for a new wave of innovative outdoor classrooms’.

He says: ’If this becomes the summer of the outdoor classroom, shade may be more important than staying dry. It might be time that the Australian Covered Outdoor Learning Area (COLA) enters the lexicon of UK schools and that would be no bad thing in my opinion.’

In terms of quick fixes he says: ’Setting out 2m patterns, even in chalk, would be a quick, low cost exercise that could involve children and make them part of the discussion and become a focus of a whole new range of playground games.

‘There’s a lot of potential to reframe the challenges into opportunities for learning and play.’

Meanwhile architects Curl La Tourelle Head, having seen makeshift tents being used in Denmark, has come up with a concept idea for new pop-up classrooms ’using marquees and portable bathroom facilities from outdoor festivals that would otherwise be dormant during the current pandemic’.

A spokesperson for the practice said: ’[Each tent] is arranged to follow the 2m social distancing rule between pupils with the adaptability to host different classroom set-ups.

’Simple and adaptable, the concept can be applied to different outdoor settings; from football pitches to pedestrianised areas and neighbouring parks.’

Clth socialdistancedschool greenbackground 110

A graphic by architects Curl La Tourelle Head showing how pop-up tents could be used and set-up to cater for 2m social distancing rules

A graphic by architects Curl La Tourelle Head showing how pop-up tents could be used and set-up to cater for 2m social distancing rules

Changes to the education world, post lockdown, are likely to range from design tweaks to whole programme shifts. Architects, as Rowe suggests, ’have something to offer schools by being part of the operational conversation, if only to be able to offer one or two minor design changes which could unlock an operational change’.

Rowe concludes: ’As architects we tend to jump towards spatial and specification solutions. The majority of changes required in this case might be organisational, operational and behavioural.

‘It’s great to creatively brainstorm design solutions; we might find something game-changing, or we may find little of merit. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up if that’s the case.’

0418 wpa entranceview curbanandcivic drmm

Wintringham Primary Academy near St Neots in Cambridgeshire for Urban and Civic designed by dRMM

Wintringham Primary Academy near St Neots in Cambridgeshire for Urban and Civic designed by dRMM

Design considerations: longer-term ideas for school design 

  • More outdoor learning through external classrooms - greater consideration of the principles of forest schools, particularly for younger children.
  • Increase physical exercise so that children are healthier. Promote exercise outside rather than in internal space.
  • ‘A school without doors’ - minimise the number of doors while all corridor doors should hold open to minimise wear and tear, and avoid unnecessary touching of handles.
  • Lockers should be distributed throughout the school, or could be external.
  • Design out toilet areas doors to minimise touching of handles and to minimise bullying. 
  • Improve ventilation. Increase air flow through passive ventilation.
  • Learn from the hospital sector in selecting materials and surfaces that are easier to clean and don’t support bacteria and viruses.
  • Increase numbers of maintenance and cleaning staff to ensure that surfaces are cleaned constantly.

 (Proposals suggested by dRMM and Maccreanor Lavington)


Claire Barton, partner at Haverstock

Reorganising the classroom for smaller numbers of children is key to ensuring less interaction. We’ve been speaking with some academies who are saying that eight may be the maximum number of children they feel comfortable with in a classroom. Also schools are typically looking at one-way systems around the school given the highly restricted widths of circulation spaces that the current government standards dictate.

Whether in reality any of this will work is a point to be debated. Under supervision it probably can be managed to some degree but how do you manage the playground and the informal social areas where you can’t have hundreds of staff policing young people? More critically, how do you manage early years pupils, whose whole curriculum is based on free flow and independent learning.

A big question will be, if we are only partially returning students to enable fewer pupils per classroom, do we choose the youngest students who will then free up more home working time for parents, or the year 5 and 6 primary students who are further along in their studies and are starting to get ready for the transition to secondary school?

Hygiene is a massive factor and there is a level of control that school management teams and designers can have on this. In special educational needs and disability (SEND) school design, given that many users are very vulnerable to infection and since the MRSA superbug raised its ugly head, we have been considering very carefully the hygiene standards. This has in simple terms led to easy to clean spaces, materials and furniture – the challenge here being how you fight the institutional aesthetic that this can bring. We don’t want to Whiterock all the walls.

The biggest winner in all of this will be the external space

The biggest winner in all of this will be the external space. The evidence shows that being outside reduces transmittance of the virus so we will be encouraging the schools we work with to take advantage of this and exploit the opportunities for outside space. Many children who have not had access to external spaces while being in lockdown will relish the idea of learning outside and the often large playground spaces schools have.

I also think parents who have been home schooling will also see how the curriculum has narrowed over the last few years to concentrate on core subjects, discouraging time for creative subjects, and I suspect parents will fight back if they can see how well their children have responded to the more unusual and creative homeschooling activities that have been much publicised. A lot of this will be supported by external spaces.

Helen Roberts, partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 

A full school, without any adaptations, running even a vaguely normal timetable, is a much harder thing to imagine now. Schools, by their nature, encourage gathering. A happy school functions like a mini society: it depends on celebration, on communal eating, large gatherings and small group work alike, where people do things together. It is where children develop emotionally and socially as well as academically, and this, as much as in formal learning, depends on interaction.

Children are not mini adults and even those who are old enough to understand the issues will find it hard, once back in a familiar setting, to comply with a new set of behavioural rules that seek to separate them from each other.

Children will be desperate to get back to school to see their friends, but they have also been exposed to the fears of their parents and the restrictions of government to keep away from other people, and they may have lost relatives to Covid-19. Their reintroduction to school will force these issues to be tackled too. Re-designing schools, as suggested by the Scottish government, or the odd ‘quick fix’ - like more handwashing stations, temporary ‘rooms’ in the playground and distance markings on the floor - will only be a relatively small part of the solution, even though it may certainly help.

Jude Harris, director at Jestico + Whiles 

There are no quick fixes, and school leaders need to be given time to assess whether they are able to accommodate the government’s requests. Many of them will have been scenario planning and risk assessing the prospect of a return to school in any case, and some have already concluded that it is not practical or possible, and this decision should be left to head teachers rather than government officers in Whitehall.

Our graphic below indicates the challenges that will be faced by schools. Most class sizes in the UK are based on up to 30 pupils, a teacher and sometimes multiple learning support assistants. As can be seen from the graphic below applying strict social distancing recommendations of 2m separation, results in a maximum occupancy of 10 pupils in a standard 55m2 classroom, dramatically reducing classroom occupancy by a third. It can be just about made to work at 15 pupils if the 2m limit is relaxed slightly.

j+w primary sketch

j+w primary sketch

Source:  Jestico + Whiles

However all of this is theoretical and whilst it might work for architects in the controlled millimetre accurate environment of a Revit layout, children are rarely as accommodating, in the same way that building tolerances on a construction site don’t always follow what we draw! Teachers are on record setting out their concerns about the practicalities of implementing social distancing in schools, particularly in early years environments. It is not in a child’s nature to stay apart from other people and school leaders also have responsibilities to their own workforce.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Annex libraries also and possibly church halls as spill out extra classroom spaces

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  • This is also being debated in Scotland. I did an interview on BBC, Thursday news along similar lines and on why it is not a good idea to compartmentalise schools and it never will be..... but it would be possible with offices and other commercial premises.

    The way forward with schools, during this covid crisis, is to reduce classroom numbers, control access, extend the school week and reduce holidays, particularly the summer six to eight weeks. It's not really a design nor architecture issue.

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  • I think one of the biggest spatial challenges is safely moving in and out of the classroom and around the room and how this can be managed for young children. The alternative of pinning children to their seats seems even worse! I've seen some animations showing office movements and how hard it is to maintain safe distancing at all times even for adults, how much more difficult this would be for young children. I fear for teachers' (and children's) sanity and well-being if they spend their time trying to police and prevent children's natural inclination to move around. I'd be interested to see and hear more from people running forest schools about the potential for outdoor learning, particularly how to manage in inclement weather. K Nugent

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  • shouldnt it be 2m from the edge of desks not 2m radius circles? there is a significant difference with this, people are about 50cm wide, im fairly sure you could still hold hands in these proposed layouts

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