The corridors and classrooms of Passmores School in Harlow became familiar to millions of TV viewers last year thanks to the fly-on-the-wall documentary series Educating Essex. Yet while the hit Channel 4 programme was being filmed, the school was already preparing to move to a brand new building and switch to being an academy.
Passmores' previous building, a 1950s quad design, was outdated, with narrow corridors and dark corners. "It had some good hiding places," says principal Vic Goddard. But Essex council's prime reason for giving Passmores a new site was to rebalance the location of its secondary schools after a closure. A design competition was held to find an architect and the firm Jestico + Whiles was appointed in January 2009.
Architects talked to staff on Inset days and also consulted pupils. They were struck by how keen staff were to have different areas for their faculties converging on a central zone that would act as a heart for the school.
Passmores' new building, which cost #163;23 million to construct, opened in September. It has a design that has been likened to a flower or a "splat", with five two-storey wings leading off a central space. The five wings, separated by glass doors, house: technology; maths and ICT; science and expressive arts; humanities and communication; and sport. The central "heart" has dining facilities and an oval assembly hall with retractable doors.
Although other recently constructed schools have also opted for radial designs, the architects believe many aspects of the new Passmores Academy are unique. While teachers do have a staffroom, staff offices are deliberately located within faculties to encourage passive supervision of the students. This was planned to reduce behaviour problems, as was the decision to make pupils and staff all use the same unisex toilets. Glass panels by each classroom door allow staff to see if their colleagues need assistance.
Tips from the scheme
- "Invest in your relationship with the architects," Mr Goddard says. "This building succeeds because it wasn't just a standard design."
- Consider alternative procurement methods. Passmores Academy was built through Smarte East, a partnership for construction services and project management formed by Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk county councils.
Evidence that it works?
In the first term, reports of serious behaviour incidents fell by 80 per cent - a dramatic improvement credited to the way the new building allows staff to keep watch over pupils. Attendance has also improved significantly to 97 per cent.
The design has helped reduce the average time wasted as pupils move between lessons by about four minutes, which will add up to a significant amount of extra teaching over a year.
The building has also been recognised as an "exemplar" project by the Essex Design Initiative's Design Review Panel.
"We just don't have the level of behaviour issues we did," Mr Goddard says. "It's changed people's jobs - it's changed everything we do."
Approach: A new school building with a radial flower or "splat" design
Started: 2009 - the building opened in September 2011
Leader: Vic Goddard, principal, working with architects Jestico + Whiles and Essex County Council
Other organisations involved: The Sorrell Foundation
Name: Passmores Academy, Harlow, Essex
Intake: A co-educational school with about 1,200 students. An average proportion of students eligible for free school meals, but a high proportion with special educational needs
Age range: 11-16
Ofsted overall rating: Outstanding (2008).