How to build schools for the 21st century

7th March 2003 at 00:00
A dilapidated 50-year-old secondary is at the cutting edge of school building design for the 21st century.

lOOK at the exterior of Kingsdale School in South London and you would hardly suspect that it represents the future of school buildings in the UK.

Set between detached mock-Tudor houses with immaculate lawns and brick driveways on the outskirts of Dulwich Village, the 1950s-era mixed comprehensive looks its age.

When Steve Morrison was appointed head in 1998, Kingsdale was in special measures and ineligible to receive the capital funding desperately needed to repair it. It had faulty toilets, inadequate dining space and suffocatingly narrow corridors.

"Issues outside the classroom were impinging on what was happening inside the class," Mr Morrison says. He recognised then what the Government and schools now acknowledge: that the physical environment is inextricably linked to the effectiveness of learning.

Yet, as society and pedagogy have changed, school buildings have, for the most part, been mired in the post-war construction boom: 56 per cent of school buildings were put up between 1945 and 1976.

Aside from the obvious need for modernising classrooms, the latest wave of attention to the built school environment focuses on three main areas: schools now need to think of opening their doors to the community; they should make much more use of ICT facilities; and there should be effective social inclusion for special needs students.

Sarah Wigglesworth, an architect who recently designed a school for the DfES's Classroom of the Future initiative, says old buildings can be depressing, and although they are not necessarily bad they may be difficult to integrate with technology.

Kingsdale was typical of many outdated schools. It was therefore the perfect testing ground for School Works, a not-for-profit organisation aiming "to link the design of secondary school buildings with their impact on teaching, learning, culture and management of those schools".

Managing director Sharon Wright says School Works selected Kingsdale as a prototype because "we recognise that many schools built during that period are coming to the end of their natural life. And we recognise what teachers are finding every day: that they are not good learning environments."

The Kingsdale project received pound;12 million. The DfES gave pound;9 million, while most of the rest came from Southwark LEA, with a small amount from Kingsdale itself.

What makes School Works different from other building initiatives is its emphasis on staff, pupil and community participation in planning. "It's about individualising it and empowering schools to make decisions on how they will be in the future," says Sharon Wright.

What emerged from the extensive consultations were specific structural changes that enhanced the school, as well as qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure the effectiveness of improvements.

One major design decision included covering the large central courtyard to create a multi-purpose space. This will ease corridor traffic, extend the grossly inadequate dining space, house a 310-seat auditorium for performance and community use, and contain flexible seating for an assembly hall to accommodate the whole school and yet be used as a social space at other times. The new atrium cover will use the same high-tech material as the roof of the Eden Project in Cornwall.

Another essential change was the need for new ICT facilities, which were completed at the end of last summer term. "I think the ICT suite has a good effect on the children. They're doing their work and behaving much better and treating it with respect," says Year 11 deputy head prefect Kelly Gray.

"When I started in Year 7, the school was a bit run-down."

The last Ofsted report from May 2002 describes Kingsdale as a "rapidly improving school that is more than usually effective and provides good value for money".

Not every school or LEA can procure the millions ploughed into the demonstration project at Kingsdale. Yet the principles of participation and quality design can be applied to any building or refurbishment plans. "It's an educational project, not a building project," Morrison stresses.

While it would be simplistic to say changes in school morale and achievement have been wholly the result of the School Works project, the managements of the school and of School Works understand the effect of innovative and holistic approaches in meeting the needs of pupils and staff.


Architecture Foundation Tel: 020 7253 3334

Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment Tel: 020 7960 2400

Movement for Innovation Tel: 01923 664 820

Royal Institute of British Architects Tel: 020 7580 5533

Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative for Training Institute of Education, University of London Tel: 020 7612 62734.

Schools Building and Design Unit DfES Tel: 020 7273 6023.

School Works Tel: 020 7401 5333.

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