As the UK Government’s controversial Education Bill limps towards the statute books, the revolution in school design is quietly gathering momentum. While the Government is struggling to drum up support for reforms that will make schools more independent, a new generation of futuristic school designs is proving rather more successful at winning over parents, staff and local education authorities.
Under fire for the poor standard of school buildings being delivered, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) commissioned eleven architectural practices to come up with a vision of how the nation’s primary and secondary schools would be delivered in the future.
‘Traditionally, schools embody bureaucracy and control, and in many cases there is a fine line between a school and a prison,’ says Alex de Rijke of de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM), one of the architects selected by the DfES. In dRMM’s scheme, everything in the school is clustered together under one roof to foster a sense of community.
‘With our design, we tried to avoid institutionalised elements such as endless corridors and treat pupils like citizens,’ adds de Rijke. ‘The ideal is everybody being able to see everybody else – a 3D idea of citizenship – immediately implying accountability.’
BUILDING SCHOOLS FOR THE FUTURE
Six architects produced ‘exemplar designs’ for the twenty-first century secondary school, with five also asked to design a primary school. The resulting ‘templates’ were then used as a guide for architects bidding for school building work, such as the government’s £15bn Building Schools for the Future programme, worth £2.2bn in 2005/06.
The DfES chose practices with a track record of delivering groundbreaking school designs, such as Hampden Gurney School in west London by Building Design Partnership (BDP) and dRMM’s Kingsdale School in south-east London.
To the architects behind these award-winning schools, the commission represented an opportunity to take their design concepts to the next level. So what did they come up with?
It seems the classroom of the future will be seamlessly connected to outside spaces, thereby drawing in the surrounding landscape. For example, the classrooms in BDP’s ‘beehive school’ abut on an outside playdeck, which on the upper floors creates a ‘playground in the sky’.
The new classrooms come in a variety of shapes; witness the hexagonal classrooms in BDP’s beehive school or the triangular spaces in Wilkinson Eyre’s proposal. These represent a radical departure from the layout of a traditional classroom, based on a teacher speaking in front of pupils.
The need for flexible, versatile space led dRMM to design a massive covered space, or ‘dura’, containing classrooms, a sports hall, dining rooms and so on, all of which could be moved around according to the needs of the school.
Architects were asked to design buildings that could easily have extensions ‘clipped on to’ existing classrooms. For this reason, prefabricated construction of ‘flat pack’ materials was encouraged wherever possible.
Such ‘permeable’ lightweight materials also complement the new generation of wireless laptops, interactive white boards and smart cards in schools. ‘We can no longer create concrete cases where wireless doesn’t work,’ explains Alex de Rijke.
Many of the designers obliged with prefabricated steel or timber flat pack systems that are easy to clip on to the side of existing classrooms – as in BDP’s hexagon beehive concept – and easy to dismantle and rebuild elsewhere on the site. dRMM’s flat pack classrooms even come complete with an internal crane, which can quickly rebuild them in another area of the building.
The school of the future will also be used less by the pupils themselves and more by the community. ‘Education in the future will be based less in schools,’ agrees de Rijke. ‘Many schools could be obsolescent in 20 years. There will be more education online, individual teaching programmes and outreach programmes in the community, and less gathering together in one large building. That means schools will need to be converted to other uses.’
The brief called for school facilities such as libraries, dining halls and sports halls to be designed for community use as well. Designers responded by separating these facilities from the teaching spaces, with access via smartcard-controlled gated areas.
Such radical concepts have been generally well received, but some of the designs have been criticised as unworkable in their current form. For example, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) thought that dRMM’s loose-fitting dura still needed work, with particular concerns about noise travelling from the sports halls to the classrooms.
Alex de Rijke denies that the dura would create a cacophony, making it impossible for children to work.
He admits that he’s still waiting to be commissioned to design an all-in-one school building, but reveals that several LEAs have shown an interest: ‘It’s a radical scheme and it’s not for everyone, but those who do like it (like it) very much.’
Meanwhile, while dRMM awaits confirmation, a version of BDP’s beehive school is already under construction at a tight urban site in Blackpool. BDP director Gavin Elliot spoke of the satisfaction of seeing innovative design concepts work just as they were planned on the drawing board.
‘The concept is for a three-storey flat pack school with two wings of classrooms either side of a central staircase. The classrooms are designed so that they are bathed in sunlight, while the adjoining play decks are shaded. It worked out exactly as we thought; the classrooms are already looking very sunny and light. It’s very gratifying to see that it actually works.’
Luckily for BDP and the other designers, their primary school design concepts are much more likely to survive being ‘value engineered’ by cost-cutting contractors, because the new generation of primary schools are being commissioned by LEAs.
Conversely, new secondary schools will be funded privately under the government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
Many architects fear that delivering privately financed schools will mean big compromises on design in the name of cost-cutting.
One architect told us that under the privately financed model that will deliver the BSF schools, design represents just 4% of the process. This is because the consortia bidding to fund and deliver the school will look to make savings wherever possible when it comes to actually building the school, in order to maximise their financial returns.
Some LEAs are reported to be bringing architects onboard separately before appointing private sector consortia, in a bid to tighten their control on how the designs are realised.
Despite fears that the private finance initiative model will stop the school design revolution in its tracks before it has even started, most of the BSF architects remain optimistic. ‘Building schools is a very bureaucratic and complicated process,’ says de Rijke. ‘You need the right head teacher, the right contractor and the right investors. But we are very determined. It is just a question of the bravest client going first. They won’t regret it.’