Architects and pupils work together in school development

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
Expansion of St Margaret's Academy takes on different dimensions as young stakeholders are offered ongoing involvement

The trouble with giving pupils a voice is that they use it.

"We want dangerous places that give you an adrenalin rush," runs the first line of the initial brief from St Margaret's Academy pupils to the West Lothian architects developing their school grounds.

Pupils may want a dangerous place, but no school is going to give them that. So how is this ongoing consultation with pupils a genuine exercise, in which pupil voices are listened to and acted upon?

In many ways, says deputy head girl Katy McBride (S6): "At the start, they didn't say what they wanted us to tell them. I have been on projects where you were given lists of things you had to talk about. This was different, more open. We started from what we liked and didn't like. Then we would talk to people and they would say, `Oh we need this' and you would bring that in as well."

It is how the design process works, says depute headteacher Sean McPartlin. "The school workshops are attended by all the stakeholders. Then the designers go away and work on the ideas, and come back and say, `That was a great concept - in the real world this is how we have to do it. Is that still what you want?' Then there is further discussion.

"Part of the learning for pupils is getting great ideas, then seeing how they need to be filtered into reality."

St Margaret's pupils have had a voice for years, he says, particularly through the pupil council. But this active involvement with the architects began last session, when the council decided to extend the school - set in attractive woodland by the River Almond - to cope with the rising roll caused by new housing.

First the fifth-years worked up their initial brief: a creative, aspirational document that talked about "stress-free social areas", which at the same time "allow us to be energetic, alive and excited". They wanted natural materials, bright colours, soft shapes, eating and drinking at small tables and "doors leading from classrooms to imaginative spaces to give a feeling of freedom."

The pupils presented this brief to West Lothian Council, then passed the baton to a teacher committee which was tasked with looking at learning spaces, and three committees chaired by teachers but filled by pupils, says Mr McPartlin. "They were our pupil council, our eco-group and our health group."

Within the school these groups are taking the project forward in consultation with the council. They are working with Architecture and Design Scotland and Grounds for Learning. "What they have done with us has been impressive," says Mr McPartlin.

Beyond St Margaret's, the feedback from pupils is already influencing the design of West Lothian schools, says education officer Alan Russell. "They said they would like to get from classrooms directly outside. We have now included that in the design of a primary school we are starting to build.

"Then there is the layout of seating. A garden in the middle of St Margaret's has benches that look nice but the pupils don't use them. If they had been set up facing each other, they told us, they would have sat on them and chatted with friends. We have now included that feature in the new school.

"We are responding. We are much more aware of what pupils want. They are the experts. If you leave it to architects, school grounds may look nice, but they won't work as well as if you got pupils involved."

But surely experienced professionals don't welcome interference from unqualified school kids?

"There are always financial and contractual constraints," says West Lothian Council architect Paul Taylor. "But if you get suggestions from pupils early in the process, you can design them in. In fact, it is nice to get ideas from the end-user while a project is still in progress."

Sometimes it is about using existing resources in new ways, says Mr McPartlin. "They told us they would like more access to the trees. As a teacher, your first reaction is `I don't want kids wandering around in woods.' But they have a point. We should be making more use of the natural environment."

Outdoor classes in the right setting can work well, says craft, design and technology teacher Daniel Campbell, who is chairing the teacher workshops. "One of the history teachers told us about lessons in a previous school where the trenches were re-enacted. So we are talking to the architects about seating and a canopy for the weather so that we can do things outside."

Getting outside, whether in lessons or lunchtime, gives young people "a bit of mental clarity", says languages teacher Isla MacLennan, who chairs the social space workshops of pupil council members. "The teachers have been trying outdoor lessons. I did one on creative writing, getting them to express how they felt outside. Their mood just lifted. The fresh air was such a change from their routine. There are so many things we can do outside, if we don't close our minds to it."

Pupil involvement with the design process is ongoing and has yet to lead to concrete results out in the grounds. But there is a big difference already, say St Margaret's pupils, in something even more important.

"We have felt more in control than you usually do in school," says Ryan Ashcroft, a fifth-year representative on the pupil council. "Getting a say in how St Margaret's is run is much better than it being done by staff."

"You see another side to teachers," says third-year rep Matthew Erskine. "When you are working together it is more of a social relationship. You see their personality. That is what makes this school good."


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