A national contest for school design could inspire architects and pupils alike, says Richard Margrave
Towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister a number of suspect packages containing "germs" were received at 10 Downing Street. The brown envelopes, addressed in children's handwriting, were found to contain graphic illustrations of bacteria.
This was not the work of a terrorist or crank, but a serious attempt by children and staff at a Cumbria primary school to draw attention to the appalling state of their school building, particularly the unhygienic outdoor toilets.
The coloured crayon drawings featured cold, draughty outside loos with green slime and multicoloured bacteria running down the walls.
Today, outside toilets at schools are relics of the past, yet the state of toilets remains one of pupils' biggest gripes. A recent study by the University of Newcastle found toilets were so poor that 62 per cent of boys and 35 per cent of girls avoided using them altogether risking serious health problems. But it's not just toilets that are poorly designed and maintained and neglected; so are many classrooms and staff facilities.
Inspections suggest that accommodation is inadequate in a quarter of schools.
It is true that spending on school buildings has risen in the past five years and is set to go on doing so, both directly from the Chancellor's spending and through the controversial private finance initiative. But it's not enough to throw money at the problem.
A recent Audit Commission report condemned the current round of school refurbishment and building as lacking vision, not adequately taking into account the impact of a fast-changing school curriculum and ignoring opportunities to expand learning for adults nd the wider community. The commission's criticism is not reserved for the public sector; an earlier report on PFI projects found their performance "significantly worse" than those in the public sector.
There is another approach. An example of it can be seen at the rapidly improving Kingsdale School in Southwark, south London. There the architectural think tank School Works, with pound;9 million from the Department for Education and Skills, has been redesigning and rebuilding the school due for completion in September. When the project started Kingsdale was in special measures.
The School Works approach aims to improve the learning and working experience for everyone. It involves pupils, staff, parents and the wider community as well as the best available architectural and design talent. It seeks design solutions that help solve problems such as poor attainment, behaviour and truancy.
A big contributor to poor morale and truancy at Kingsdale was - you guessed it - the toilets. A simple review of sight lines in corridors and classrooms contributed to improving behaviour in the school.
School Works is now involved in six more school design projects. It has also produced a "tool kit" that takes a school through the pioneering participatory process developed at Kingsdale and directs schools to sources of design advice.
The group has also produced Tike, a web-based game for 11 to 16-year-olds, with free curriculum materials for teachers, which encourages pupils to redesign schools.
Further support comes in the shape of an initiative from The Education Network. This brings together local authority managers, heads and architectural and design professionals to discuss the best way to design and build a school.
What I would like to see now is a new national and regional competition to celebrate the best school and college design and architecture.
For those of us who witnessed the outdoor toilets "germ" campaign, it would mean a lot to see children and staff from the winning schools and colleges emerging from Downing Street to collect their awards.
Surely there would be support for such a contest from the snazziest architectural practices, go-ahead local authorities, public finance initiative consortia and the Government itself?
Dr Richard Margrave, a former adviser to Jack Straw MP and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, is a consultant to School Works. The School Works Tike game is at www.school-works.orggame