EXPERTS believe that the way school buildings are designed needs a fundamental rethink. The new Education Minister has pledged his support for "imaginative and creative" design.
Current approaches to renewing the school estate through public private partnership (PPP) schemes came in for particular criticism at a conference organised last week by Children in Scotland. It was held, symbolically, at the Lighthouse in Glasgow, Scotland's centre for architecture and design.
Graham Leicester, director of International Futures Forum, a strategic think-tank, said that a culture of fear, targets and mediocrity had to be rebalanced by one of creativity, learning and play. "This is not easy but it is essential if we are to prosper."
Mr Leicester, who has co-authored a new guide* on designing schools published by Children in Scotland, told the conference that the contracting process prevents authorities from tapping into the knowledge and potential of communities and designers.
He criticised "the contract culture" of the PPP approach for being "over-rigid and over-specific" and unable to foresee future needs.
"There seems to be a mentality that we have a limited time. So we have to specify everything because, it is argued, ultimately we are going to get a contract and making alternatives to that contract is going to be expensive," Mr Leicester said. "Authorities feel locked into a process that doesn't allow them enough time to carry out the consultation that they want and puts them under pressure."
Contractors are frustrated by the "specificity" of working to a brief and being unable to respond to the needs of a community. "It is the relationship that is important," Mr Leicester said, "a creative relationship that allows authorities to tap into the full knowledge of the designers in the first instance.
"Separating the design phase from the construction phase allows the authority to go to tender with a better brief. This will allow greater creativity on the part of the contractors and produce a better result overall."
Trudi Sharp, head of the school estate branch at the Scottish Executive, assured the conference that ministers had high aspirations for school design. Ms Sharp acknowledged that PPP "brings its own challenges" and that a more pragmatic approach is needed. The Executive was committed to greater openness and collaboration on building projects.
Sometimes, Ms Sharp commented, the fault lies not with PPP schemes but with "the people who dive into PPP without thinking through the process".
In a statement, Peter Peacock, Education Minister, pointed out that the Executive was embarking on the biggest ever school building programme, benefiting another 300 schools by 2009. "I see this as a unique opportunity for imaginative and creative design," Mr Peacock said.
Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, welcomed the commitment to involve children and young people. "The way space is used in schools is crucial to the learning experience and design should involve all users. The current building and refurbishment programme offers the opportunity to create spaces which are user-friendly, assist learning and enhance children's lives."
Bruce Jilks, an American architect and educational planner, stressed the need to engender a sense of ownership in new buildings. "You need to have a process that allows the multi-stakeholders group - parents, students, business people and senior citizens - to get together in the planning process because this will give them ownership and they will not feel that it is something that has been superimposed on them."
Mr Jilks said that the Executive's pound;2 billion school building programme in Scotland was "a wonderful opportunity".
Alastair McLachlan, head of Lornshill Academy in Alloa, who is being seconded to co-ordinate the pound;48 million makeover of Clackmannanshire's three secondary schools, said everyone was on "a steep learning curve".
The main challenges were linking educational requirements to building design, being precise about these specifications and "balancing expectations with reality".
*"Designing schools for the future - a practical guide" by Rebecca Hodgson and Graham Leicester. Available from Children in Scotland, Princes House, Shandwick Place, Edinburgh EH2 4RG (0131 228 8484).
RULES FOR GOOD DESIGN
* Zone playgrounds for different types of play.
* Welcoming and clearly visible entrance.
* Spaces for socialising and working in groups.
* Cafe-style areas which are open longer and serve the community as well as pupils.
* Working areas for teachers and support staff.
* Good toilets.
* Quiet spaces for children to escape from the bustle of the school.
* Better use of lighting, colour, acoustics, heating ventilation and furnishings.