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Better shape up

Billions of pounds are being splashed on new schools. But critics argue that the rush to hit construction targets means we are missing a golden opportunity to radically transform learning environments. Hannah Frankel reports

Schools across the country are being renewed and rebuilt at an astonishing rate. The Government is putting pound;3 billion into the Building Schools for the Future project in 2005-06 in an attempt to drag every secondary school in England into the 21st century within the next 15 years.

But in the rush to hit targets, is enough thought going into how buildings, and classrooms in particular, can foster and enhance learning? Professor Tim Brighouse, the chief adviser for London schools, gives an emphatic "no". Although he applauds wide-scale regeneration after years of neglect, he is urging more haste and less speed.

He accuses the Department for Education and Skills of paying too little attention to the size of classrooms in the rush to get buildings up.

"People simply have not allowed for sufficient teaching space. It should be 10 or 20 per cent more and frankly we would do a lot better if we built schools at a slightly slower pace."

Professor Brighouse identifies a lack of expertise within supportive bodies, including Building Schools for the Future and Partnerships for Schools, as a major part of the problem. The result, he says, is flimsy briefs for architects who may also be inexperienced when it comes to building schools; after all, they have had very little practice over the past 30 years.

Nick Mirchandani, a director at the architecture plb practice, admits he was fortunate to gain experience building schools in the Channel Islands in the early 1990s when there was very little going on on the mainland. So he was not a beginner when he was commissioned to design the state-of-the-art Jo Richardson school which opened last term in east London, the first secondary to be built in Barking and Dagenham for more than 40 years.

For him the success of the pound;30m building - which includes a public library and an adult education centre - is largely down to the clear vision of the local education authority and the school's headteacher. For the past 10 years, Barking and Dagenham has focused on school function rather than form. Inspired by Swiss classrooms, which are markedly larger than the typical 55 to 60 square metre classrooms found in England, the local authority decided to follow suit.

"We looked at schools in Germany and Switzerland and asked why they perform so much better than us," says Roger Luxton, director for education at Barking and Dagenham LEA. "Without doubt their high-quality classroom spaces underlie better performance, so we've taken our classrooms and made them more effective and efficient."

He is adamant that pedagogy and learning can be improved through architecture and design. "Of course it's important that buildings are visually exciting and vivacious, but they have to function as well."

Both the borough's leaders and the headteacher, Andy Buck, were adamant that they wanted bigger classroom sizes - 75 square metres as standard - so they could arrange desks into a "horseshoe". The horseshoe is fundamental to what Mr Buck describes as the school's "framework for teaching", which relies heavily on discussion, not just between pupils and teachers but between the pupils themselves. To make this work, pupils must be able easily to see each other, be equidistant to the teacher and effortlessly access technology.

Most importantly, the extra space gives teachers the flexibility to embark on a variety of whole-class, group and paired work. "We started with the pedagogy," says Mr Buck, "and from there we asked ourselves what kind of spaces we needed to work in that way."

Jo Richardson school is keen to encourage confident speakers who are engaged and thinking - even if they are not personally answering questions.

As a result, the school has adopted a "no hands up" policy ("Ban on putting your hand up", TES, January 27) so that all pupils can expect to contribute without feeling picked on. "With the horseshoe, there is no back row and there is nowhere to hide by not putting up your hand, because the teacher chooses," says Mr Buck. "It also takes away the stigma of bright kids who don't want to put their hands up because they don't want to be labelled as boffs."

The LEA is keen to spread its vision throughout the borough, and has sponsored every primary and secondary head to visit schools in Switzerland.

Eastbury school in Barking has been partly rebuilt, and although the constrained site means its classrooms are not as big as those at Jo Richardson, it has managed 70 square metres plus - sometimes double the size of its old stock of 70-year-old classrooms.

Acting headteacher Clive Swinton says the larger rooms make classes easier to manage and allow pupils to feel more at ease and more willing to contribute to discussions. "In the smaller rooms it's quite hard to spread pupils about into smaller groups because the furniture alone fills up all the space," he says. "The bigger rooms and horseshoe encourages people to speak up confidently. You can be the most intelligent person in the world but if you can't speak with other people then it's going to be a problem in terms of getting a job and getting on with life generally."

Sharon Wright, an associate of School Works, an independent organisation set up to liaise between schools and architects, is aware that not all LEAs or schools have the knowledge or vision to contribute so positively to the architects' brief. "Schools need to be clear about how they want to use their spaces before they talk to the design team," she says. "Heads are not architects and they need help and support if they are going to know what's possible and what they can and can't ask for."

The briefing process can also be too short, she argues. For example, School Works has been working with Integrated Bradford, which has just won the contract for Bradford's pound;400 million BSF programme. The team had only 16 weeks to complete designs of three secondary schools. "We were lucky because schools in Bradford were doing a lot of thinking in advance and were ready to have a conversation, but it's a very short time to involve school communities properly," says Ms Wright.

Nick Mirchandani believes schools must talk to each other if they want to get the best possible architectural brief. "Look at recent examples both at home and abroad," he advises. "Talk to recently commissioned schools and find out what went well and what went badly."

Professor Brighouse warns that school design is a lottery, with standards varying according to the building expertise of heads and the educational experience of architects. He is particularly critical of some of the multi-million-pound academy buildings which "err on the side of striking, landmark architecture" rather than educational function. He cites the pound;31 million Bexley academy in Kent, designed by Norman Foster. "At Bexley, you have the bizarre fact that the sports hall is on the first floor and can only be reached by going through the main part of the building," he says. "What on earth were they doing?"

Sam Price, chief executive of Bexley Academy, admits that access to the sports hall is a "bug-bear", but asserts that pupils love the building; it was shortlisted for the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2004 (which the "Gherkin" went on to win). "It's a very radical design and it takes some getting used to in terms of a working environment."

Mr Brighouse, who first got involved in school architecture as a young education officer in Monmouthshire and Buckinghamshire in the 1960s and 70s, is a firm believer in attention to detail and appreciating the influence of environment on learning. "You need amazing attention to detail; the surroundings are tremendously important," he insists. "It affects everyone's behaviour and performance."

Barbara Marinakis, a Year 8 pupil at Jo Richardson school, agrees. She spent a year at the school's previous cramped site, before moving to the new premises last September. "I really like the bigger classrooms because it's so much easier to talk and express your views," she says. "I had this friend who was quiet and shy at primary school, but since coming here she's much more confident. She works and talks more in class. She's really happy here and I think that may be because of the way the building and the classrooms are."

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