School design

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Traditionally, schools were modelled on the factories of the industrial revolution. But while most other legacies of Victorian education have gradually been replaced, school design has altered little in over 100 years. With the Government promising that all secondary schools in England will be rebuilt or refurbished within the next 15 years, things may be about to change. Under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project, more than pound;2 billion will be shared among 180 schools during the first phase of the programme this year and next, with more to follow. It should bring schools and communities together with leading architects and banish draughty mobiles, smelly toilets and crowded corridors. But what makes a well-designed school? And how do you get one?

What is good design?

Some design elements are subjective. Are you a glass and steel enthusiast or a natural materials buff, for example? Do you like cool and uncluttered, or homely and welcoming? But good design is about more than looking attractive; it's about working properly. Well-designed schools should be efficient, robust and flexible. The design process should take account of everything from how the school sits in its plot of land and how it is accessed, to the colour of the corridors and the way the lockers work.

While in recent years there have been significant changes in our understanding of how children learn, school design has struggled to keep pace with these more sophisticated approaches and there has been little detailed research into what makes the best learning environment. Classrooms of the Future, a 2001 DfES pilot project, generated around 30 case studies of good practice. And specialist organisations such as the Design Council have helped schools experiment with everything from designing for different learning styles to introducing 360-degree classrooms with swivelling chairs and wall-to-wall whiteboards. But there is still a long way to go. "We need to look at everything from external spaces to staffrooms and kitchens and find ways of making these work for the people who use them," says Ty Goddard, managing director of School Works, which is working with schools as part of the BSF project. "The challenge is to be practical and inspirational at the same time."

Out with the old

A standardised, institutionalised environment, lacking character. Add-on technology squeezed into classrooms. Uncomfortable, inflexible furniture.

No control over light or ventilation. Regimented desks. Cluttered social spaces. Noisy and overcrowded. Sound familiar?

But the traditional school environment is not just uninspiring. The Design Council's Kit for Purpose research in 2002 showed that poorly designed schools reduced the range of possible teaching and learning styles, undermined the value placed on learning, cost more than well-designed schools to maintain, and wasted time. A Mori poll conducted last year found that 95 per cent of teachers recognised that the environment had a strong influence on the way children learn and behave. Despite this, most staff also believe school design is unchangeable and beyond their control; something to work around rather than something that can be used more positively. "It's a bit of a blind spot," says Toby Greany, who leads the Design Council's learning environments campaign to champion better school design. "People's idea of what a school should look and feel like is culturally deep-set. That's why schools have changed so little."

And in with the new

The BSF project, launched last year, has set aside pound;2.2 billion to be divided between 180 secondary schools in 14 local authorities. More funding is promised, and the DfES hopes that at least three schools in every authority will have begun major remodelling by 2016.

The first BSF schools are well into the design process and should be finished during 2007. In Knowsley in Merseyside, there are plans to do away with the name "school" altogether, bulldozing all 11 secondaries as part of the BSF scheme and replacing them with "learning centres". At Buttershaw high school in Bradford, the 50-year-old building, with succeeding generations of extensions, is being replaced by a new-build school; construction work is due to begin next January. "The old school has a massive footprint: you can walk over a quarter of a mile from one end to the other," says deputy head Alan Jarvis, who is managing the project. "The new building will be more compact and easier to manage. We have the chance to design out the problems and design in opportunities."

In Scotland, too, school design is high up the political agenda. The Scottish Executive published guidance on design issues in 2003 and hopes to rebuild or refurbish 300 schools by 2009.

All good news?

While everyone from kitchen staff to design specialists welcomes the attention being given to the school environment, there are reservations about BSF. "The danger is that BSF may be driven by the need to fit in with tight time scales rather than allowing schools to set the vision they really want," says Toby Greany.

Anyone who has ever had the builders in will be able to vouch for the inevitable upheaval of making major changes. School Works is looking at cutting the time it takes to build a new school, and thus the disruption, by encouraging architects and contractors to consider using prefabricated units that can be made off-site and then slotted together. "This could potentially speed up the process and allow schools to function normally, but without compromising quality," says Ty Goddard.

Meanwhile, younger children seem to be missing out altogether. Primaries are excluded from BSF, and some organisations point out that the enthusiasm for design hardly seems to have filtered down the age range. "Capital funding has had a transforming effect on some schools. But it hasn't made much impact on pre-school children or on school-age childcare services.

Spaces for young children are often overlooked," says Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, which, in an effort to redress the balance, is running an international design award and conference to focus attention on the importance of good design for the youngest children (see resources).

Light and airy?

The brief for many school design projects emphasises flexibility. Swapping a single monolithic building for a series of clusters, each with classrooms and social spaces, is one way of getting this flexibility. This allows certain parts of the site to be accessed for adult learning or after-school activities without opening and heating the whole school. It can also separate younger and older pupils to help them feel more secure. We may be heading towards mini-villages and away from the concrete warehouses of the past.

Inside, new designs often emphasise break-out spaces where children can interact in small groups. There is enough space for staff and pupils to move around comfortably and the long treks from one side of school to the other are reduced. Many new designs emphasise natural light and ventilation, and include sculptural elements, landscaped grounds and "intelligent" lighting, heating and toilet systems, which can respond automatically to changes in conditions.

Or cheap and noisy?

Inevitably design conflicts and budget restrictions also have a role to play. Current trends for highly reflective materials and large open-plan spaces, for example, can make it difficult for designs to comply with acoustic standards. "There's a reluctance to design for acoustics," says Bridget Shield, professor of acoustics at London's South Bank University.

"People often don't understand the impact poor acoustic design can have on health, behaviour and attainment. The acoustic needs of pupils and teachers are being largely ignored by the architectural profession."

Rapidly changing requirements such as those for ICT can also cause problems. While plumbing and lighting go in as a school is being built, ICT often goes in at the end with the desks and curtains, which can mean power sockets in the wrong places and trailing leads. Worse still, the technology may be out of date before it's even been switched on. The first schools built under the BSF scheme, for example, won't open until 2007, but ICT, which can only account for 10 per cent of the total budget, is being specified now.

And what's the point of a shiny new school if you get backache from the old chairs? Although children sit on school chairs for 15,000 hours of their lives, a survey 10 years ago found that in some schools as much as 86 per cent of furniture was unsuitable for use. According to the charity BackCare, little has changed in the intervening decade and more than half of children are experiencing back pain as a result of poor seating. While European manufacturers frequently develop furniture in partnership with schools, many UK manufacturers still do not comply with the existing British standard for school furniture. "Most schools have to find money for furniture from revenue budgets, so they buy the cheapest thing possible," says Toby Greany. "We need to change the mindset of schools so that they are prepared to spend more and recognise the benefits."

Getting results

Given the opportunity to spend more, however, many schools choose to invest in extra staff rather than new furniture or refurbished classrooms. But moving design up the to-do list may have more benefits than just providing nice photos for the prospectus. At Bexley Business Academy in Kent, the numbers achieving five A-Cs at GCSE went up from 6 per cent to 36 per cent after their new building was opened in 2004, while at Kingsdale School in Southwark, remodelled with a budget of pound;11 million over six years, the proportion gaining five A-Cs rose from 15 per cent in 1999 to 41 per cent in 2002.

Better designed schools have been shown to improve behaviour, promote staff communication and encourage use by parents and community. Better lighting and ventilation can cut sickness; good acoustic design helps improve concentration and save teachers' voices; and using robust materials can reduce bills. If further proof were needed of getting a return for your investment, take a look at the stock market: Design Council research found that the FTSE 100 companies that are most design-savvy outperformed the rest by 200 per cent over 10 years.

Getting involved

Better exam statistics are not just the result of better physical conditions: design specialists also emphasise the improved motivation and feelings of ownership fostered by being part of a vigorous process. The Sorrell Foundation's joinedupdesignforschools project emphasises the problem-solving and life skills children can acquire as they hammer out design issues. The most successful projects tend to be those where the whole school community takes part, from the earliest brainstorming sessions to ordering the finishing touches.

When staff move into a new school, even the most effective teachers can struggle to adjust to their new environment. "If it feels like it's been dropped on you, then inevitably there'll be some resistance," says Toby Greany. "You have to have meaningful engagement of all the stakeholders: staff, pupils, parents and entire community. It has to be a negotiation."

Getting everyone involved from the beginning also makes sure nothing, or no one, gets left out. School Works uses a multidisciplinary team, including educational psychologists, engineers, researchers and artists, to tackle issues such as bullying and personal safety through design. As part of the design process for Buttershaw high school, they also arranged workshops where staff and pupils could share their visions for the new school, a design festival and inspirational tours of local buildings. And at Great Sankey high school in Warrington, part of the Design Council's learning environments project, physical changes have gone hand in hand with changes to ways of working: satellite libraries have brought research tools within students' reach; "celebration screens" - LCD display boards that publicise student achievement - have emphasised a praise culture; and a redesigned staffroom has introduced what headteacher Alan Yates calls "the smiley factor". "Our design project is about thinking laterally, doing things differently and raising motivation," says Mr Yates. "It has made us think hard about exactly what we're trying to do as a school, and only then making changes to the environment."

Getting what you want

Knowing what you want from your new or refurbished school may be one thing; getting it is another. With all the different interests in the design team, it can be difficult to hold on to the school's original vision. "Working on a project like this is very stimulating, but it's time-consuming and there's a lot to learn," admits Alan Jarvis at Buttershaw, where an extra deputy head has been employed to allow him to spend more time and energy on the new school. He recommends talking to as many people as possible who have been involved in recent design projects and making visits to other new or remodelled schools. "You need a proper research phase to make well-informed decisions. You need the ability to keep the big picture and the finest detail in mind at the same time, otherwise you could end up with a visionary building in which the doors fall off."

Getting help

But if you don't know your atrium from your buttress, or your purlin from your pointing, where can you get help? The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) appoints an "enabler" to help demystify the process and get schools and contractors talking the same language. The Design Council's learning environments campaign offers schools an intensive design "immersion", followed up by expert advice. It is also about to pilot a website,, initially with 100 schools, offering inspirational models and practical help. In a similar vein, School Works publishes a tool kit to help guide schools through the design process, while the Scottish Executive and Children in Scotland have a number of practical guides (see resources).

Even so, with so many schools subject to building programmes, some experts would like to see more basic training before the need arises to tackle architects or quantity surveyors on site. "A module on design could be part of school leadership qualifications," says Toby Greany. "We're talking about huge amounts of cash and all sorts of different ways of spending it.

Schools need to be given the tools to be confident, intelligent clients."

All or nothing?

Even if your school is not top of the new-build list, there are still ways of improving design. "Even minor changes can make major improvements to how a space is used," says Children in Scotland's Bronwen Cohen. Some schools have experimented with colour schemes, improved lighting, flexible furniture and tactile areas.

At Great Sankey, getting students to redesign praise postcards, for example, has transformed attitudes."I've had these praise postcards for about 14 years," says Alan Yates, "and I've never had to write so many, or seen them have such an effect."

Meanwhile, for all those starting out on the more daunting task of building new schools, the message is clear. "We have a fantastic opportunity," says Ty Goddard. "BSF is the biggest school design and building project since the Victorian age. We can't afford to get it wrong."

Main text:Steven Hastings. Illustration: Patrick Lewis. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: Self harm

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