Gary Hayden looks at a project that enabled pupils to work with leading designers, inspiring creativity and showing how design can improve quality of life
It is a common lament in design and technology circles that "making" enjoys much more recognition than "designing". A final product is tangible; you can give it marks out of 10 and you can take it home or stick it in a display cabinet.
Trying to evaluate the design process and encourage pupils to think more about the products they make and why they are making them, is much trickier. One way to encourage them to develop their planning and thinking skills is to take part in initiatives such as the Sustainable Design Awards, which encourage pupils to think about the end-users and the impact of their designs.
Another is to bring designers into the classroom so pupils can see how they work in the real world. Coming face-to-face with the professionals, they quickly understand that designing is as much about thinking and listening as it is about doing.
JoinedUpDesignForSchools is an innovative project that brought together pupils and top designers, with the pupils calling the shots. The project was run by the Sorrell Foundation, a charity set up by designers Frances and John Sorrell, with the aim of inspiring creativity in young people and improving quality of life through good design. More than 60 schools have taken part in the three-year initiative, which culminates in an exhibition this month at the VA.
In each participating school, a group of pupils identified a problem they wanted to have solved. The Sorrell Foundation then appointed a leading UK designer to work for them. During a three-month consultation period, the designer tried to find an imaginative and workable solution to the problem raised. The pupils then presented the final idea to staff, governors, parents and other pupils.
Sharon Plant, the director of the Sorrell Foundation, says:
"JoinedUpDesignForSchools links the design industry with the education industry. The pupils are the clients. They have intimate knowledge of the problems that need to be solved to improve their lives at school. Their voices feed the designers, who have to respond in exciting and imaginative ways.
"Pupils are very demanding clients. They know exactly what they want. They know when something is right, and they know when it's wrong. If the designer presents something that does not quite work, they're very quick to point it out. Most of the designers find this very refreshing."
Toilets were identified as a problem by many of the client teams, including the pupils at Barlow Roman Catholic High School in Manchester. They told local design firm Judge Gill that they wanted attractive, well-equipped toilets where smoking and vandalism do not occur.
Assistant headteacher Anne Marie Proudfoot says: "Judge Gill listened to the pupils and looked at our toilets. They invited us into their offices for discussions, and took us on a tour of the city centre to look at toilets in clubs and public buildings.
"Then they came back with some ideas. Sometimes the kids said 'yes' and sometimes they said 'no, that won't work'. And their input was vital, because they're on the ground floor and know the reality.
"The designers took everything the pupils said on board, and came up with a superb final design. And what particularly impressed me was that they treated the pupils with the same respect as they would any other client."
The pupils finally accepted a design for a single new toilet block to be used by the whole school, including the teachers. It includes some innovative features. The walls of the hand-washing areas are made of toughened glass so that people can see inside, thereby discouraging vandals. The design also incorporates a shoe-cleaning trough, as pupils complained that existing sinks became blocked with mud from sports boots.
Jack Johnson, one of the pupils involved in the project, says: "Judge Gill didn't treat us like kids. They treated us like clients. They gave us lots of ideas, but they wanted our ideas, too."
Fellow pupil Laura Briscoe agrees: "We all worked as a team. We couldn't have designed the toilets without them. But they wouldn't have known what to do without our opinions."
The JoinedUpDesignForSchools project has identified a number of common complaints that pupils have about their schools. As well as unsafe and unhygienic toilets, these included lack of dedicated social space, lacklustre uniforms, second-rate dining facilities, and insufficient storage for pupils' belongings.
Students at Aldercar Community School in Nottingham presented a brief to fashion designer Paul Smith. They wanted a versatile school uniform that could be worn during summer and winter terms. The school has now produced the uniform, which is worn and liked by the pupils.
At Treviglas Community College in Newquay, Mark Barfield Architects helped to create a woven wooden cover to make use of an unloved courtyard.
Children at Hugh Myddelton Primary School in London wanted to make their school more welcoming by giving it a fresh new image. Designer Marksteen Adamson rebranded the school with a modern logo, eye-catching classroom signs and class stationery.
Sarah Davey is the headteacher of Mounts Bay School and Community Sports College in Penzance. Her pupils, working with designers Phin Manasseh, came up with the Creativity Barn, a versatile social and study area that will be run by the pupils.
She says: "It's been amazing to see the way their confidence has grown, and to watch them develop as leaders within the school community. Parents have said that they can't thank me enough for the change this project has made to their children's attitude toward school."
The one problem has been bringing the projects to fruition. While many ideas became a reality, it was up to schools to find the funds for completion. At Mounts Bay, pound;240,000 has been found to build the Creativity Barn, but pupils at Barlow can only imagine their dream toilets, as the total funding required still has to be found.
But even without a finished design solution, the initiative was enriching in so many other ways, says Sarah Davey: "I believe that any project that gives time and attention to young people will make a difference.
"And what's wonderful about JoinedUpDesignForSchools is that the pupils get to work alongside some very important people on some really prestigious projects. They're being listened to, so it really makes a difference."
The JoinedUpDesignForSchools exhibition is on show at the VA until March 18, and includes a programme of special educational events co-ordinated by the Sorrell Foundation.
"We will be conducting a series of 50 workshops at the VA," says Sharon Plant. "More than 1,000 pupils will be meeting with designers. They'll learn how to prepare their own design briefs, which they can present to their school governors and headteachers."
A matinee presentation on March 2 will include films, pupils and designers talking about their projects.
* Sustainable Design Awards
Exhibition booklet: Joined Up Design for Schools by John and Frances Sorrell (Merrell pound;29.95) Tel: 01235 465500 VA Group booking: 020 7942 2211 Email: email@example.com