Good school design

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The best way to ensure an effective and sustainable redesign for your school is to take part in the process yourself, argues Richard Hurst.

In this country you have to go back to Victorian times to see a commitment to investment in school buildings at the present level. As a result, like the Victorians, we share a momentous opportunity to design, deliver and equip buildings that support a new vision for education, children’s services and our communities.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the rewards – if we get it right – will be huge: genuine transformations of education for our children, our economy, our society and our future. The challenge is: how do we successfully push forward this essential investment when, like so much of modern life, the future shape of education in the 21st century is so difficult to foresee with any clarity?

Essential to creating any effective modern learning environment are:

  • high-quality design for teaching and learning 
  • user participation in the design process 
  • flexibility 
  • sustainability 
  • eficient procurement 
  • tested innovation.

Teaching and learning requirements are the heart of a school design brief because, as the needs of learners change, so the school design must respond. There is much talk today about 'personalised learning' – tailoring education to individual pupils’ needs, interests and aptitudes in order that every child reaches their full potential, regardless of their background and circumstances. Change dictates new spatial requirements, placing emphasis on lexibility, external spaces and technology – a diversity of spaces for a diversity of learning.

The government programmes Every Child Matters and Sure Start also call for a new ‘joined-up’ approach to the well-being and education of children and young people, with services such as health, social services and community policing located on or near school sites. This 'extended schools' concept places schools at the centre of communities to provide facilities for lifelong learning, community entertainment and development.

In addition, the growing use of ICT for teaching and learning tools will have a direct impact on the environment of a school. Young people will have the means to learn anytime, anywhere and, with the development of online communities, in touch with a wide range of people who can help them in their learning.

For all these reasons, designing schools or their refurbishment is a many-faceted and far more complicated challenge than it has ever been in the past.

Design quality
Modern life shows us how pivotal good design is in everything we make, use and do. This could not be more true in school design. Consumers of goods and services are the arbiters of success and those who work in and use learning environments are the real experts. Involving them in the design of a school environment is a key element of success. Including users’ ideas, comments, needs and desires in the design brief for a learning environment produces a sense of ownership that can have long-term effects on the way the environment is used and treated. If users understand what an environment can do they will have more incentive to ensure that the building does what it should.

Users can be involved in all aspects of the decision-making process, from choices of site, design, room layout and access requirements to ixtures, ittings and furniture. There is a wide range of tangible beneits:

  • Better decisions and outcomes. Stakeholders – all the people who use the school, or have an interest in it – will be the best source of knowledge and wisdom about how the current school systems and design work. If this knowledge is gathered and used, better decisions will be made as to how the new school might be used or improved in the future.
  • Positive thinking. If staff and pupils understand what options are realistically available, they are more likely to take the project seriously and think positively about it. Creating a design together means that everyone has an interest in making it work once implemented. The resulting consensus can make the process of implementation and construction more effective.
  • Fitness for purpose. User involvement strategies aim to produce places teachers want to teach in and which allow them to meet the demands of the National Curriculum and Primary Strategies. It is also easier to reine the design of an environment to cater for people’s changing requirements if they have been consulted thoroughly on their needs beforehand.
  • Thinking space. A participatory process creates a space in time for all to think about the future direction of a school and how their ideas might be translated into a design. People can also discuss the probable constraints on resources, reducing the likelihood of disappointment later.
  • Improved relationships. Participation provides the perfect opportunity to forge links with the local community,businesses and local organisations, particularly useful for schools hoping to offer extended services. Working together on a design project can also help to improve relationships within the school, say between staff and pupils or between different faculties.
  • Catalyst for change. Enabling discussion on the design of the school building can act as a catalyst for change to the management or pedagogy of the school. Generating an enhanced sense of ownership over the school can also increase a sense of pride and well-being.

Experience shows that good design quality need not cost more if there is rigorous early planning and research on a project. In the long run using quality materials, furniture and fittings will often save money. Quality standards must be stipulated in the brief at the outset of a project and embedded in the design. Of course, the procurement process must then facilitate this drive for quality.

The last generation of schools, built in the UK during the 1960s, 70s and 80s often compare poorly with their surviving Victorian forebears. Poor design and poor materials mean that their short lives, high maintenance costs and energy consumption have proven to be the very antithesis of what we now mean by ‘sustainable’. This century’s circumstances demand designing, procuring, constructing and running schools in ways that minimise harm to the environment in every way. A sustainable school is also a school that supports the development of the local community, initiatives for regeneration and nurture of the ‘whole child’.

Some of the educational developments we have already discussed make these aims no less challenging. The growing role of ICT, whiteboards and other technology, and thus their energy consumption, can add massively to a school’s carbon footprint and the resulting waste heat can make for ventilation problems. The extended school concept means schools have to be lit and heated for many more hours in the week than formerly, and someone has to reliably turn things off when they are not being used or when everyone has inished for the day. The importance of management in the running of a school cannot be overestimated. Sustainability requires diligence; it requires a change of culture; and it requires commitment from everybody, from pupils through to the governing body and the local authority.

Sustainability is not a given. It is often very fragile, and a lack of attention to good design and effective post-occupancy management will lead to dashed hopes.

Designing schools in these circumstances naturally provides huge scope for innovation. Suddenly there is opportunity to explore new pedagogies, new concepts, new layouts and exciting new technologies. And with that new opportunity there is the chance of getting things horribly, and very expensively wrong. The schools we are building will not be replaced again for a long time. So how do we avoid mistakes?

One way available to everyone is to learn from what others have already done – use tested innovation. In the UK and in other countries many innovations have already been tried or are being implemented. Denmark and the USA, for example, are facing the same challenges but often approaching them from very different starting positions. Time spent exploring such projects, visiting the schools, talking to their designers and the teachers actually using them is time spent invaluably in the early stages of a design programme. Insist on adequate early time in your programme for this essential element.

Building a new school or refurbishing one has never been more complicated and challenging. There is no template that provides the solution to the problem or even a component part of the problem. A brilliant solution for circulation will work in one place, but not others. A toilet design will suit one community but not another. A loor plan will work for one educational ethos, but not others.

One way of learning from inspirational architects, specialists, suppliers of equipment, constructors and other educationalists sharing the task of designing schools for this century is to meet others in the same situation.

Richard Hurst is head of operations for the British Council for School Environments.

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