Architects don't know the half of it

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
ome weekend newspapers contain columns entitled "Books by my bedside" or "A little night reading". They are an opportunity for well-known people to boast about their current reading. I try to ignore them because the obscure choices remind me that I am not as well-read as I like to think. Or is it possible that they are only for effect and nobody actually reads Dostoevsky at bedtime?

Recently I have been impressed by my own bedside books. Along with the ever-present omnibus of P G Wodehouse's tales of Blandings Castle, and Robert Harris's new thriller Pompeii - and yes, I know how it ends - I have a growing pile of volumes on architecture. There is Dialogue, from the Dundee Institute of Architects, Designing schools for the future, published by Children in Scotland, and the collected best entries from the Guardian competition "The School I'd Like".

You don't have to be Mystic Meg to guess that school building is at the front of my mind. Our local council has announced that we are to be one of the beneficiaries of its bold step into the area of public private partnership. Yes, we are going to have a new school, ready for occupation by 2007.

The news took me by surprise. Our present building dates from 1938 along with the Beano and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. The newspaper reports of its opening describe it as bright and modern but time moves on and it has lost its lustre. Each classroom is full of children - thus denying us a library, computer room, parent area, music room or general purposes space - and our playground is less than half the area that our roll deserves.

But I presumed that new schools only replace crumbling Victorian buildings and that we would have the fun of shoehorning nurses, psychologists and instrumental instructors into the corners of cloakrooms for years to come.

We have a short time to compose our wish list. Most of all we need space, inside and out, not just for a music room but for the class areas where children spend most of their time. When space is tight, we spend too much effort exerting control - to minimise safety hazards and to ensure that children don't disturb one another. Generous and flexible teaching space will improve children's learning and allow teachers to be more adventurous.

To add to the excitement, we are going to share a campus with our secondary school which is also moving to a new building. And not just a campus where schools pretend to co-operate but keep at arm's length. Shared facilities - including library, PE block and support areas - provide a real chance of building top-class liaison and curriculum flexibility.

The built environment should encourage a blurring of sector boundaries so that primary-trained teachers work with younger secondary pupils while secondary teachers are an integral part of P6 and P7 life. If we can't sort out 10-14 continuity in this set-up, there is no chance of it ever working.

While I am enthusiastic, I know there are pitfalls. Good design enhances the activity for which the building is intended. Helen Clark, in Building Education, emphasises the benefits of natural light, well-planned spaces and calming colours. "This affects behaviour and attitudes," she says, "and can significantly enhance or impede the learning process."

But some design is not as good as its architects think. One of my bedside books proudly describes the outdoor area of a new primary school. "(The) curved aluminium roofs overhang a series of courtyards and provide secure external play spaces for children."

Sounds impressive. But I know this school. The curved aluminium roofs also block out natural light so children and teachers spend all their classroom time in fluorescence.

Like the bedside book choices, I must not take architects at face value.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school, Perth.

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