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Bridgemanship bucks the trend

At every lesson change-over Andy Buck takes up his position on the indoor bridge that overlooks the "main street" of his new school.

Megaphone by his side and whistle at the ready, the head's vantage point over the airy atrium allows him to see what every pupil at Jo Richardson school is up to.

"I am trying to get them to salute me," he jokes as he keeps an eye out for pupils who are running or in the wrong uniform.

The clear sightlines from "Buck Bridge" as all pupils pass through the atrium - which doubles as a food court - on their way to lessons is no accident.

He was involved in the design of the new campus, officially opened in Dagenham, east London, last week, from the outset.

"The problem with private finance initiative (PFI) school building schemes in the past was that people rather arrogantly assumed they knew what schools wanted," said Mr Buck.

With Jo Richardson school pound;250,000 was spent drawing up a plan to meet staff and pupil requirements long before any construction company became involved. The outcome is a school that has been designed, in the head's words, "from the classroom outwards". Those classrooms are bigger than standard to allow enough room for 30 desks to be set out in a horseshoe plan, rather than rows. It suits the Swiss-based teaching style, emphasising whole group oral work that Barking and Dagenham council encourages its schools to use to counteract pupil disaffection. The horseshoe, used in all Jo Richardson classrooms including science labs and design technology workshops, also means that no pupil ever sits at the back of the class or behind a classmate.

There is similar attention to detail throughout the school from the windows set high enough to reduce outside distraction, to imported Australian chairs that are impossible to rock back on.

Each department has a dedicated corridor allowing it develop its own culture with an office where teachers, banned from taking work into the general staffroom, can do their marking and preparation. Some of the extras are possible because the school doubles as a community centre, paid for with an extra pound;7 million from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. A public library, adult college and shared sports and arts facilities have been incorporated with separate pupil and public entrances, making the campus feel like two distinct centres. The result is a pound;30m school that James Hodgson, the council's PFI project manager, believes, because of its dual role, is far better value than some showpiece academies costing a similar amount.

"I know that one, for example, has open-fronted classrooms where all the noise comes out," he said. "How can they let that happen? It maybe adventurous architecturally but it cannot help the teaching."

Mr Buck agrees: "These academies maybe trophy architecture but they are not as functional as they might be. I worry that all this BSF money is not necessarily being spent effectively because stakeholders are not involved from the start. We were but unfortunately that is still very unusual."

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