Better by design

31st March 2000 at 01:00
The traditions of good architecture have largely bypassed Britain's schools. Phil Revell looks at how some children are helping to shape their classrooms

Children at a crumbling south-east London comprehensive are to be consulted over a pound;5 million redesign of their school as part of a government scheme to monitor the effects of the environment on learning.

Kingsdale, in Dulwich, Southwark, will be a test bed for design innovations which could influence the way schools are built in the future.

Its pupils and teachers could get some valuable advice from schools in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, which for the past two years have been involved in architectural design projects in the classroom.

"We've had a link with the council's architects' department for a long time," says Mike Beloe, A-level design and technology teacher at Denbigh school. Andrew Armes, Milton Keynes's chief architect, is a regular visitor. Together with fellow architect Peter Rickaby, he provides curriculum support for students on design courses.

Architectural projects at A-level often involve designing complete buildings. "They are often done very badly," says Beloe. "It's an enormous project and all too easy to go off the rails if students fail to think things through - but this school has been very successful."

Denbigh has a 100 per cent record in the subject over the past seven years and was an obvious winner of Milton Keynes's School of the Future competition last autumn, timed to coincide with National Architecture Week.

Year 12 students with no previous architectural experience were asked to design a school for the 21st century and given just four weeks to complete the task. The students split into groups and competed to produce a viable model. The winning group (Lorna Pearman and Graham Day, both 16, and 17-year-old James Salter and Vanessa Sheik) chose to redesign the school's craft, design and technology block.

"We felt that it needed to have a lot of natural light," says James. "We designed very large windows." Their building has a glass frontage for all three floors and at the front is an exhibition area. The students wanted to keep the different elements of CDT separate and each floor has a technician's room and a "theory area".

Armes feels that their plan is very rational and Beloe would love to have the abundance of technical support the students designed into their model.

The students say they enjoyed the exercise but confess that they had been quite pleased with an earlier design - until someone pointed out that it had no corridors, storerooms or toilets.

Meerbrook first school in Milton Keynes has some features that Kingsdale might consider adopting. Its imaginatively designed open spaces are aspects that Armes feels are under threat. "The literacy and numeracy initiatives have led to authorities briefing for closed classrooms, which I think is a mistake," he says. "In a few years' time, we are going to be knocking closed classrooms through again."

He concedesthat open plan designs often have been misconceived, with classrooms which were too small and the potential for a lot of noise. "But there is a happy medium," he says.

At Meerbrook, classrooms are arranged in pairs, each sharing an open space. Teaching rooms have a curtained opening and a removable wall so that the relationship between classrooms is flexible.

"Each of these rooms is big enough to teach 30 children, yet you still have the possibility to teach in other ways or to team- teach," says Armes, "and this is one of the things which we arelosing in the new brief."

Walking around the school, the impression is of space and light. Noise doesn't appear to be a problem. "We have 90 children in at the moment and most of them are five-year-olds, yet no one has their curtains drawn," says Jane Banting, the headteacher. She appreciates the flexibility for teaching.

The diagonal arrangement of paired classrooms has produced some interesting uses for the space. The saw-toothed exterior is roofed over to allow parents to wait for their children in shelter. The staffroom is trianglar. "The shape is nicer than a rectangle," says Banting. "It makes it less like a waiting area - you're almost sitting in a circle."

Like most new schools, the design had community use in mind and there is a distinct public entrance and a hall which can be used while the rest of the building is closed off.

The same idea occurred to Year 6 children at Southwood middle school, in Conniburrow, Milton Keynes, in their entry to the School of the Future competition. Southwood's young designers came up with a pig and piglets concept, in which classrooms are grouped around a central hall. "They were very keen on the idea of a nucleated design - with everything compact for energy reasons," says Armes. "These classrooms could actually be taken away to a different school if there was a population shift."

Southwood was built in the early Eighties and has generous open spaces but very small teaching areas. When Doug Abrams was working with his class on their prize-winning entry, he wasn't surprised that they choose to have much larger classrooms. "We started by looking at our school and thinking about what we liked and didn't like," he recalls. "We looked at priorities for education - what was the school for?" Abrams argues that architecture is an ideal vehicle for teaching. "You have to get the children to break out and use their imagination," he says. "Architecture is wonderful for that - it has so many cross-curricular links, it's ideal."

One of the problems for architects is the low level of design awareness in Britain. People are often unclear about what they want to see in a building. In schools, this is exacerbated by unrealistic specifications from the Government (see panel above) and the separation of the design process from teachers and children. Partnerships such as those in Milton Keynes and projects such as the Dulwich experiment could point the way out of that lack of understanding.

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