Calming influence

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Five years on and after a pound;28 million makeover, one London school has transformed itself and its pupils. Biddy Passmore reports
Five years on and after a pound;28 million makeover, one London school has transformed itself and its pupils. Biddy Passmore reports

The sight of Year 10 pupils bearing boxing gloves inside Kingsdale School in Dulwich, London, would have been cause for alarm a few years ago. It would have meant some serious antisocial behaviour and probably a spot of bullying. But, a few months ago, all it gave rise to was a little mirth.

The Year 10s made their way to a quiet spot, set out a ring and began shadow-boxing, overseen by a referee they had brought with them. The scene was captured on CCTV and caught the eye of a passing teacher, who quickly put a stop to it. But the "match" has acquired a kind of fame. The CCTV footage is sometimes replayed on plasma screens inside the giant atrium of the school. It never fails to raise a laugh.

This episode shows how the atmosphere in this south London school has changed since a physical transformation that was completed 18 months ago. It is calmer, quieter, less aggressive than it was. And one of the main reasons for that is that the school is lighter and more open. Everything is visible, either directly or by discreetly placed cameras.

It is very different from the gloomy set of late 1950s blocks in which the 1,200 pupils of Kingsdale, the largest single-site school in London, used to exist. Worst of all were the dark, narrow corridors, only 5ft 3in wide and cause of endless logjams, violent incidents and bullying. Today, after a five-year, pound;28 million makeover, many corridor and office walls are see-through, and the atrium roof is made of the same plastic polymer as the roof of the Eden Project.

An increase in passive surveillance is central to the thinking behind the makeover. "It's a design based on deterrence rather than sanction," says Steve Morrison, school principal. The huge central atrium has the same calming effect as a cathedral, he says. It is divided into two halves at breaktimes and it needs supervising by only two staff in each half, compared with the 20 on lunch duty in the bad old days.

Steve says the result of these changes has been that the pupils' behaviour has improved "in leaps and bounds". "There's been a significant reduction in both actual bullying and in what's been reported," he says.

Recent school questionnaires suggest that pupils are feeling safer. Since the makeover there has been a general reduction in antisocial behaviour, including bullying, which is clear from the exclusion figures. When Steve first came to the school in 1998, the yearly total for permanent and fixed-term exclusions was 300 or more. Now, there are only one or two permanent exclusions a year and 20 to 25 fixed term.

Of course, no building design yet invented can change human nature. Bullying can happen wherever two or more people are gathered together in a confined space - and cyber-bullying can happen almost anywhere. But the brighter, more open and more visible the space, the less bullying there will be. Ask any pupil.

That's exactly what a growing number of heads, architects and designers are doing as they work on the new schools and refurbishments of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Again and again, they find, pupils mention their fear of bullying and pinpoint the hidden places and conditions that allow it to flourish: insanitary, unsupervised toilets; narrow, easily clogged corridors; and locker rooms.

And they ask, again and again, for spaces that will make them feel safe and relaxed: more sheltered outdoor spaces and seating, but also dedicated indoor spaces in which they can "chat and chill". At the same time, they dislike the prison-like fences and heavy-handed security measures that are sprouting in many urban schools. "They don't want dark corners or any in-your-face surveillance," says Sarah Hill, the head of research at the British Council for School Environments, which recently conducted an online poll of pupils' views. "Young people don't like being spied on."

If school buildings are to deter bullying, pupils must be involved in the design of them, says designer Sir John Sorrell, chairman of Cabe, the government's buildings watchdog. His Sorrell Foundation has set up a scheme (Joinedupdesignforschools), where pupils work with des- igners on school improvements on anything from toilets to dining halls.

At Acland Burghley School in Camden, north London, fewer than half of the 1,300 pupils formerly used the dinner hall because it felt chaotic and disorganised. Pupils said being on your own at lunchtime could result in bullying, but so could going out.

Since a makeover in 2005, pupils prefer to stay on site and feel safe if they do so. Forget dinner halls; the architects have produced a "dynamic, multi-purpose dining experience" with an internet cafe and sheltered, outdoor eating pods where pupils can sit in groups and be easily seen.

Lunchbreaks have also been transformed at Mounts Bay School in Penzance. Rather than standing in the playground in pouring rain, prey to boredom and bullies, pupils can now make use of the Blue Cube. It's a sheltered structure, managed and run by pupils, who can socialise, study or use computers there.

Any school design aimed at deterring bullying must also focus on "pupil flow", says Sir John. "Secondary schools are moving very large numbers of people, 1,000, even 1,500, around during the day," he points out. "You've got to pay attention to pinch points, staircases, crossovers. You don't get this kind of problem in offices. It requires intelligent thinking by architects and designers."

Intelligent thinking certainly lies behind the design of Westminster Academy, the prize-winning school in west London. All classrooms can be reached from the atrium, but pupils and staff can also enter and leave via balconies running along the length of the building towards so-called "escape stairs" on the short sides.

Corridors are "the widest I've seen, in any school," says Alison Banks, principal of the school, with "break-out" bays where children can sit and write. "Often teachers sit down there too," she adds.

It's a far cry from the former middle school building in which the academy opened in 2006, its 750 pupils squeezed into a space meant for 450. The corridors were so narrow, says Alison, that a pupil pushing at one end risked creating a domino effect.

The design was the product of close collaboration between the architects and the school, says Debby Ray, the project architect from Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. Workshops with pupils identified lockers and toilets as two areas of key importance. One result is the school's now-famous "bully-proof loos" (see panel, right). And lockers, formerly situated in old PE changing rooms and so flimsy they could easily be prised open, are now sturdy and out in the open. They line the walls of the atrium on each floor.

Alison says the move into the new building has almost put a stop to the fighting that was quite common, even between friends. It has also stopped "arguments in the toilets". And there's much less work for the school's resident police officer.

Spacious, well-designed buildings do not just save pupils from bullying; they also save bullies from themselves. At Kingsdale, Steve recently met a former "bad boy" in the corridor. The boy commented how nice the school looked. But he added wistfully: "I preferred it the way it was before; you could get away with anything then."

Steve replied that, if the school hadn't been physically transformed, the boy would probably no longer be in it.

Creating bully-proof loos

The clients said something needed to be done to improve the school toilets. They were dark, dirty and untidy and there were problems with graffiti, broken toilets, and people "throwing PE kit and loo paper over doors", they explained.

The "clients" were pupils at a Hertfordshire school, drawing up a design brief for new toilets under Joinedupdesignforschools, a scheme set up by the Sorrell Foundation (

Better, safer toilets were the pupils' top priority, as they are for pupils in many schools who know that toilets are often haunted by bullies. Ideas for improvements vary, but there are common themes:

- Good lighting and no dark corners.

- Floor-to-ceiling doors and walls of cubicles.

- Strong locks on doors.

- Automatic flushes, driers and taps.

- Some surveillance, an attendant possibly, glazed walls for outsiders to see into the washing area, CCTV camera in the washing area or in front of the entrance.

Meanwhile in London, the architects of Westminster Academy came up with an elegantly simple solution: a single, long, tiled room with, along one side, a row of self-contained toilets. Each has floor-to-ceiling walls and a mirror and automated washbasin, waste-bin and dryer within. There is a door at each end of the room so if a bully attempts to corner a pupil, there's another exit.

A slightly different option, featured by the Government in its recent Bog Standard report, is a single block of toilets, used by both staff and pupils, with opaque glazed walls to the hand-washing area to make users feel safe without losing privacy.

This idea is based on a design drawn up for Barlow Roman Catholic High School in Manchester, under the Joinedupdesignforschools scheme. Sadly, it has never been implemented because of lack of money.

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