Sea change

26th November 2004 at 00:00
A new-build school on the Essex coast has a radical design brief based on pupils' work with an artist. David Newnham and Wendy Wallace report

Anyone who was ever in Year 7 knows only too well the anxieties a 12-year-old faces every day. But designing a school in such a way that it subtly evokes the nearby coastal landscape? That's usually something the grown-ups take care of. Not so at Jaywick. Here, where Essex gravel gives way to the grey North Sea, a group of students were asked: "Given rectangular cement blocks in four muted colours, how do you sum up the ever-changing patterns of water and seaweed as they ripple and flow over a sandy beach?"

With the help of a digital camera, and guided by a professional artist whose work adorns public spaces throughout the county, one student hit on the answer. And so expressive were his jiggling coloured lines that they are now built into the fabric of Bishops Park College, a pound;16 million comprehensive under construction at Jaywick.

The exercise was part of Coast, a three-year visual arts project run by Essex County Council that aims to raise the cultural and aesthetic profile of the Essex coastline with a series of permanent and temporary artworks and events. More specifically, it was part of Coast Schools, a strand of the larger project that involves three artists working at three schools in and around Clacton-on-Sea, involving pupils in the task of integrating artworks into new architecture (see box, overleaf).

In Jaywick, the situation is especially unusual and the project more ambitious, in that Bishops Park is a new school, and the scope for incorporating art into the architecture almost unlimited. While the striking new building has been taking shape in full view of their temporary classrooms, the pupils (now Years 7 to 9; the school opened three years ago) have been working with artist Rob Olins on a succession of projects designed to give them a sense of ownership of the site, as well as an insight into what happens when aesthetics run up against the realities of a major construction project.

"I give them the job I'm doing and say, 'Here's my brief'," says Mr Olins.

Then we go down to the beach and get all sorts of landscape references. We sit and talk about what they have on their palette, which is made up of coloured blocks or lino instead of paints. And we talk about what you can and can't do. This is something you'd probably give a mature architecture student to do rather than young kids. But, in a funny sort of way, you get better ideas from the kids because they don't bother about the restrictions. They'll come up with a concept, then try to work round the problems, rather than saying, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do here?'"

In line with the aims of the Coast project, Mr Olins and his young collaborators have been busy dressing the new building in the subtle colours and lines of Jaywick Sands, a popular resort until the 1960s, but now one of the poorest parts of the county. And, not surprisingly, the job began 18 months ago with a trip to the beach.

"It's all about how you take the landscape and then change that into something simpler - something essential rather than representational," says Jane Elkins, head of visual arts at Bishops Park. "For 11-year-old students, that's quite a leap to take. But Rob does it in a good way.

"They went down to the beach and looked at the landscape in terms of textures, line, colour, shape and form. Then they collected objects and brought them back, drawing them and breaking them down into simple shapes and colours." The children then worked with a 1:50 scale model of the new building, and learned along the way how to read and make architectural plans.

But while some of their designs make it into bricks and mortar, says Ms Elkins, for the most part their contribution has been indirect. "Rob is good at explaining to them that they won't see their work but his interpretation of it, with some elements of their ideas as a group coming through. He's trying to get over to them the idea that he retains his integrity as an artist, while fighting to make sure they get something pleasing to the eye and interesting."

It's not just the fabric of the building that is being redefined at Bishops Park. Headteacher Mike Davies has an unashamedly radical vision of schooling. Formerly head of Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes, Stranraer Academy in Dumfries and Galloway and, briefly, the fresh start Telegraph Hill in the London borough of Lewisham, he has the opportunity at his latest school to grow a new school from virgin soil. "I want to change the nature of our relationships, so they are authentic and engage kids in learning," he says.

The school has been designed with this in mind. When the futuristic, airy and light-filled site, built under the Private Finance Initiative, is complete, it will be three schools in one, each self-contained, semi-autonomous unit eventually having 300 pupils. The current 400 pupils, housed in a temporary, arc-roofed building, are already divided up between Towers, Windmills and Lighthouses schools. In their first two years at secondary, they are taught by just five or six teachers. "Everyone in this school has someone they can talk to," says one pupil.

The teaching philosophy is based on children taking the initiative, pursuing their own investigations and interests. Fridays are given over to masterclasses in narrative poetry, cake-baking, probability and making board games, with Monday to Thursday devoted to the regular curriculum.

Teachers at Bishops Park have to be pedagogues first, subject specialists second, working in cross-curricular teams with fewer than 80 children. Work is planned thematically, rather than in subject-driven lessons. For example, Year 8 recently wrote, acted in and filmed a soap opera. Using the story of a working-class girl who becomes involved at university with a French merchant banker, they explored English, PSHE, drama and French, and studied art and design through the making of the set and costumes.

Block timetabling, in the form of three consecutive "faculty days" each half term, gives scope for in-depth learning. Clubs at lunchtime and after school -there are 26 of them, from chocolate-making to juggling, trampolining and modelling - are compulsory but children are allowed to choose which ones they join. Mr Davies says "there has to be space for children to define some part of their curriculum". There are also daily 40-minute literacy or numeracy sessions. While not every lesson can be all-singing, all-dancing, they are always about more than just grabbing a textbook off the shelf.

Children start at Bishops Park with standards of literacy and numeracy well below average. Coming from three of the poorest five wards in the county, many are teetering on the brink of disaffection - a process that can accelerate alarmingly over Years 7 and 8. Yet attendance rates are high, not because the school is particularly tough on absenteeism, but because students want to come. And Ofsted agrees. Its recent report said: "Good attendance is mainly due to the interesting and relevant curriculum."

In a school where conventional structures and assumptions are turned on their heads (to explain the school hierarchy, Mr Davies draws an inverted pyramid, with himself at the bottom, supporting the teams), teachers seem as keen to learn as the pupils.

"I love the freedom of the staff sitting down together, brainstorming half a term's project, then fitting in, say, French, in ways that make it more relevant," says Frances Holloway, an advanced skills languages teacher who moved to Bishops Park a year ago.

And Peter Robinson, formerly a deputy head in Staffordshire, turned down nine other job offers to take up a post in January this year managing primary liaison and induction. "My first contact with children here swayed it," he says. "They were so enthusiastic."

With the new building due to open in spring 2005 and much of the structural work complete, many of the aesthetic elements are already taking shape.

Exterior wall panels display a succession of subtle, coastal hues, and two multicoloured block walls are in place. To reinforce each mini-school's sense of identity, the buildings will be colour-coded with red, green and yellow brickwork. These colours will be taken up by trails of pulsing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) built into corridor walls. Powered by a wind turbine in the school grounds, they will act as route indicators between sections of the building.

The idea for the LEDs came to Rob Olins as he discussed lighting with pupils in one of his workshops. And a similar process inspired the unusual design for much of the school's coloured flooring. "I wasn't after them designing it," he says. "The patterns are basically what I distilled down.

But one kid did a very nice drawing of the bay. She did it as a mixture of what you would see looking straight down from an aeroplane and what you see when you are on the ground. You get these wonderful beige shapes at Jaywick, with lines of seaweed and lines of sand. And she drew these with lots of semicircular forms, but on a square. I thought that was a pretty good idea, and it translates easily into vinyl."

While the children's input has undoubtedly been useful ("you get pretty interesting results, but not what you expect"), Mr Olins sees the project primarily as a confidence-building exercise. "You try to get them to do things they haven't done before; to push the boundaries a bit," he says.

"That's the main target: for them to have new experiences, and make things they'd be happy about and get a bit more confidence in their own abilities.

"A lot of the kids don't have any self-confidence. They think they can't do something even before they have tried it. So you want to crack into that and say, 'Come on, let's have a go'. "I try to show them that a building like that is made by people just like them, only a bit bigger. You can go in there and talk to the architect or the builder. It's about people working, and it's all accessible. You don't have to say, 'I'm not bright enough to make anything in this world'. If you're interested, you can get in there and do it."

At the same time, saysMr Olins, there is the question of ownership. "If they feel they are involved in some way in designing the building, or just having some impact on the builders, it helps. They'll feel happier about moving in."

Mike Davies agrees. "That sense of the kids' involvement in the process - the release of their energy and creativity - is lovely. In fact the whole partnership between the architect, Jane, Rob, the kids and the builder has been profoundly wonderful."

At lunchtime, children peer through the window of a ground-floor office at a scale model of their new school. On the other side of the car park, under the wheeling gulls, the real thing is taking shape, the school's rebirth a tacit admission of the ways education had been failing some children here.

There was a need, demographically, for a new school and parents were interested in something that might be different. They believed, says Mr Davies, that schools were about bullying, about failure; institutions that did not meet their needs. Bishops Park is doing things differently. "We are trying to say that the present is not sufficient."

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