Design lessons

(Above: Central atrium of Westminster Academy by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, with graphics by Studio Myerscough. Photo: Timothy Soar)

In design terms, what makes the biggest difference to a school environment and to the learning experience?The design of our schools impacts upon much more than just the built environment – in helping to shape the lives of the young people who attend them, schools also help shape the future of society. As Nick Mirchandani and Sharon Wright point out in their new book, Future Schools, other than our homes, these are perhaps the only building type of which almost everyone has first-hand knowledge. But what makes a well-designed school and what lessons can be learned from the innovation we have seen recently? We talked to Mirchandani and Wright about the evolution of school design, how the emergence and demise of the Building Schools for the Future initiative has affected the current landscape and why design has to work even harder in times of budget restrictions and austerity

Over the past 15 years we’ve got much better at delivering buildings that work in terms of their environmental comfort, and this has made a significant difference to how users feel about their learning spaces. In the past we heard stories of buildings that were too hot in summer and too cold in winter, which had poor acoustics, and which didn’t allow users any control over temperature and lighting levels in the classrooms.

Once we’ve got the basics right, it is often the detail that makes the school effective. Flexible furniture that can easily be reconfigured within and between lessons allows teachers and pupils to match the environment to the learning. Good storage, corridors which are generous enough to enable ease of movement around the school, and toilets which afford privacy but allow for good passive supervision. And, given staff and students spend all day in the same building, pleasant social spaces, both inside and outside, that allow them to relax at lunchtime and breaks.

 External games area of Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre, London. Photos: Timothy Soar
External games area of Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre, London. Photos: Timothy Soar

What aspects of school design from the past are still relevant to today’s models?

In 1931, Sir Henry Hadow’s report ‘The Primary School’, for the then Board of Education, recommended that infants should be on the ground floor of primary schools that were over one storey, and that buildings should be placed so as to obtain as much sunlight as possible, and should be cross-ventilated. He also said that classrooms should have flexible furniture, and that good storage should be provided.

Despite the fact that education policy has changed with consecutive governments since the 1930s, much of the early thinking on what makes a good school environment is still relevant. In fact, we’re in danger of ignoring the good practice from the past. Henry Morris in the 1920s and Lady Plowden in the 1960s talked about the need for schools to be community buildings, something that was very much part of the Building Schools for the Future Programme until 2010. Our book is flagging up some of the good practice from the past and the present in the hope that we can continue to embed it in future projects.

How significant is collaboration between designers and educationalists? And how can they work together best?

It’s a critical part of delivering the best possible building for the end-users. The education brief is the starting point and should specify, clearly and with identified priorities, what the school needs from its building to be able to deliver high quality teaching and learning. It should tell a clear story to the design team about what outcomes the project needs to achieve. It is the school’s way of explaining what difference the project will make to students, staff, parents, governors and the community.

In order to be effective, the education brief should therefore include a comprehensive review of the school, its context and its educational goals so the design team can quickly get a real understanding about how they can meet the needs identified. From there it’s a process of engagement through the design phase. The partnership between the educationalist and designer is the key to getting it right.

 Looking over the Piazza Cafe across the Dining Lake and beyond to the Learning Resource Centre at Gateacre School in Liverpool by architects BDP. Photo: Richard Mills Photography
Looking over the Piazza Cafe across the Dining Lake and beyond to the Learning Resource Centre at Gateacre School in Liverpool by architects BDP. Photo: Richard Mills Photography

Can you explain the impact of the last Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future initiative on the industry – and the controversy over its demise?

Building Schools for the Future had a massive impact. Its scale and ambition were unprecedented in recent memory and as a result the response required of the industry was huge. Although it was explicitly more than a mere building programme, the £55bn investment in secondary education was to be facilitated by rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in the country by 2020.

This scale and speed were of course part of the problem. Expertise in the sector, as experienced clients, designers and contractors, was limited after decades of under-investment. The decision to prioritise Local Authorities on the basis of deprivation and poor attainment also meant that in some cases, those least able or experienced were at the vanguard.

The industry responded to the challenge however, and expertise grew exponentially over the years from 2004. Early errors were also corrected. For example, from 2008 Local Authorities were added to the programme on the basis of ‘Readiness to Deliver’ as well as on an evaluation of need. Design Quality also came under greater scrutiny, with the introduction of Minimum Design Standards and mandatory review by CABE from 2009. Both good and bad practice were publicised and lessons were increasingly identified and disseminated.

Nevertheless, problems persisted. Most important was the protracted, overly bureaucratic and wasteful process. In an industry already stretched to deliver, the requirement for competition during the bid stages required three designs for each ‘sample’ scheme, two of which would be jettisoned. ‘Competitive Dialogue’ also limited meaningful engagement between end-users and designers.

With this background, allied to the worldwide economic situation, it was perhaps no surprise that BSF came in for increasing criticism. Following the election in May 2010, review and cutbacks were widely expected. The sudden cancellation in July 2010 was however, a major shock to the industry – 715 schemes were suspended with immediate effect and a massive impact, for contractors and design teams alike.

 House logos in the 'heart space' at Passmores Academy, Harlow by architects Jestico and Whiles. The heart space is a gathering place for the whole school which doubles as a dining and social space. Photo: Tim Crocker
House logos in the ‘heart space’ at Passmores Academy, Harlow by architects Jestico and Whiles. The heart space is a gathering place for the whole school which doubles as a dining and social space. Photo: Tim Crocker

How does the Priority School Building Programme fit into this story?

The Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP) was launched by the coalition government in May 2011, following the publication of the James Review of Education Capital. The first phase was announced a year later with 261 schools identified for rebuilding or comprehensive refurbishment. Of these, 214 were to be delivered through capital funding and 46 through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). A further £2bn of investment through a second phase (PSBP2) was announced in May 2014 and it is envisaged that this will affect 277 schools. Both PSBP and PSBP2 are procured using the Education Funding Agency’s National and Regional Contractors’ Frameworks.

Unlike BSF, PSBP and PSBP2 are designed to address buildings in the worst physical state, rather than to effect a wider educational change. The evaluation criteria for PSBP2 for example focused entirely on condition and took no allowance of the buildings’ suitability for 21st century education.

In terms of current Department of Education policy, are we seeing a move towards standardisation and a systematic approach, rather than the creation of more bespoke environments?

One of the conclusions of the Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital was that increased standardisation would be an important component in reducing the cost of school buildings, both in design and construction. It recommended that “a suite of drawings and specifications should be developed that can easily be applied across a wide range of projects”.

In response, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) developed a number of ‘Baseline Designs’ for different sizes of primary and secondary school. These fell short of James’ further recommendation that “These drawings would cover the layouts and dimensions of spaces and walls, and details of how different materials and components will be fixed together” but instead sought to illustrate how the revised space standards of Building Bulletin 103 could be delivered at the reduced funding allowances.

Response to the Baseline Designs has been mixed. Most of the larger contractors involved in the sector have instead developed their own forms of standardisation. While some offer ‘off the peg’ building solutions, most have opted for a ‘kit of parts’ approach involving standardised building elements, preferred constructional solutions and repeatable specifications. Such an approach offers more potential for creating bespoke designs, to suit specific school preferences or a particular site.

In reality, the greatest restriction on design freedom is not this kind of standardisation but [new rules that] reduced the ‘float’ area allowances which allowed schools to develop bespoke briefs and their architects the opportunity to create design solutions tailored to particular needs.

 A former store cupboard now provides quiet marking space at The Charles Dickens Primary School. Photo: Kristen McCluskie Photography
A former store cupboard now provides quiet marking space at The Charles Dickens Primary School. Photo: Kristen McCluskie Photography

Budget restrictions and affordability are clearly key concerns at the moment. Have design aspirations been hampered by this and become more limited as a result?

Compared to the more generous budgets of BSF, current funding is sufficient only for minimum provision. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the very high level of inflation in construction costs, itself the result of the length of the preceding recession. Design freedom and opportunities for developing bespoke solutions are therefore extremely limited.

Of even greater concern however is the impression offered by some that good design is a costly luxury that simply cannot be afforded in times of austerity. As a result, design aspiration has virtually no part in PSBP thinking. As architects however, we believe the opposite, that good design is not only valuable it itself, but that it is an inherent and crucial part of the solution. It is only through innovation and creative thinking that we will discover new, better and more cost effective ways of delivering excellence in school buildings and landscapes.

In the book, you write that the school environment plays a bigger role than simply accommodating learning. What else do schools need to provide? And how can they be designed to take into account the needs of staff?

Too often we forget that schools are workplaces as well as learning spaces. A Headteacher recently told the Education Select Committee that he felt in its previous building his school had ‘no future’ and he couldn’t necessarily recruit the quality staff he needed to provide a really good education. “Teachers can look around and think, ‘I can work in that one, or that one, or that one. I will go somewhere else.’” What happens if your building is so awful that no one wants to work there?

In the book we have a case study from Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark where the staff worked with interior designers, Contents Design, to refurbish their staff room for around £50,000. Bespoke furniture, such as shelving and workstations, were designed to promote collaborative working as well as to provide quiet workspace. The new layout delivers greater flexibility, allowing for efficient use at peak times. It is inclusive, catering for the different needs of support staff and teachers.

The end result is that teachers are using the space more to share ideas and teaching methods, which leads to them being inspired and passing this on to the children. Recruiting and retaining high quality staff can be a challenge for some schools, and providing them with well planned spaces to plan, prepare and collaborate shows they are valued.

The book celebrates what the industry has learned over the past 15 years and aims to excite and inspire. What important lessons have been taken on board already, do you think?

We feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to gather some fantastic examples of what our sector has been doing over the past 15 years. And we know there are many more we just didn’t have space to include. So far we’ve found the book has sparked debate and encouraged readers to reflect on what we are aspiring to from our ‘future schools’.

The book has confirmed that we know what works – we just need to keep pressing government to ensure the funding is there to deliver. It would be a huge shame if we were to see budget cuts deliver schools which simply didn’t work for the long term – that would be a much greater waste of money than spending a small amount more to get the right solution now.

We’ve had feedback that the book has energised colleagues and reminded them that this sector is incredibly creative and highly committed to delivering learning spaces which meet the needs of the young people who use them.

Finally, could you outline some of the things we might see in schools in the near future?

Technology is one area where schools are changing fast. With many increasingly using mobile technology we’re seeing learning happening everywhere in the building and in the landscape. For example, hand held tablets allow sports staff to video student performance and give instant, meaningful feedback but for this to be effective you need good Wi-Fi connections across the school site and the ability to use technology well in every space, not just traditional classrooms.

The pressure on school places is also a major issue in many urban areas. We’ve recently heard calls for schools to work in shifts with students attending at different times of the day to accommodate the increased numbers. It may be that we see our school buildings work harder in the future, and in different ways, and we will need to be prepared to create environments that deliver for a non-standard day.

Future Schools: Innovative Design for Existing and New Buildings edited by Nick Mirchandani and Dr Sharon Wright is published by RIBA Publishing, £35. See