Where alien and 'imbedded' intelligences meet

7th December 2007 at 00:00
An ICT suite made from billowing balloon-like fabric, a state-of-the-art gym-cum-auditorium, themed classrooms and minimalist unisex toilets - not the kind of school most of us are used to.Elizabeth Buie tours Dalry Primary, an pound;8.5 million building which has taken nearly 10 years to create. Photographs: Chris JamesEpicscotland.Dalry primary is different from any other new school - very, very different. And if the artist involved in its radical design had been given free rein, it would have been even more different - with half its classrooms built in different shapes, ranging from a one-sided room (a circle) for the P1s to a seven-sided room for the P7s.

Even as it stands, however, it is by far the most revolutionary school building to have been constructed in Scotland. At the heart of its design is the desire, articulated by North Ayrshire's soon-to-retire director of education, John Travers, to create a school which is not merely a place suitable for education, but a building that actually stimulates and enhances pupils' learning.

Glasgow-born artist Bruce McLean, who is professor of fine art and head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, had a dream which chimed with that ambition. He wanted to create a school based on the concept of "imbedded intelligence" - in which ideas, information and data are projected through the fabric of the building, enabling children to learn as much from the school itself as from their teachers.

Through a circuitous route, the authority's educational and technical services department and Bruce McLean and his team came together in a collaborative project that has taken almost 10 years to reach the final stages. The eventual cost was pound;8.5 million, including pound;166,000 from the Scottish Arts Council's primary spaces initiative to develop new concepts in school building design.

One of the first features encountered by the visitor to the school is a wall which bears three versions of Robert Burns's poem A man's a man for a' that. The first version is as he wrote it, the second is spelt phonetically, the third is an English translation. Not a single teacher has explicitly taught the poem to any of the pupils; it is there to stimulate their thinking. It is one of the first overt signs of the underlying philosophy of the school.

Another is less obvious - until attention is drawn to it. The number seven features strongly. Maureen Denningberg, headteacher, who has been at the school for five of the 10 years, explains: "It's because seven is a magic number. The time in school is seven years; music has seven notes in the scale; a spectrum has seven colours; there are seven letters in primary; seven days in a week; and we have seven senses, according to Bruce McLean - our five senses, plus a sixth sense, and nonsense."

So, above the ICT suite is a wall reaching to the rafters with the seven stars which make up "the plough" (their names are inscribed in Greek - another stimulus).

Mr McLean's original idea for the computer suite was that "if you are going to do something anywhere, you have to have a reason for it". But, he says, you can also invent one - so he invented the idea of a spaceship which had landed from another planet, full of alien intelligence. The room is far from conventional. Its sides are made of silver-grey balloon material, which undulates and billows up to the ceiling - earning it the name "the brain" from the pupils.

All the classrooms are on ground level - apart from the environmental studies room, which is perched on the top of the building, giving a clear view of the surrounding town and farmland. Part of its flooring appears to be missing - a section has been cut out and replaced with glass to show the underfloor central heating pipes. The same has been done in the ceiling, to expose the water system to view.

"It shows the children how it all works," explains the head. The room opens onto a railed-in area of decking which contains round wooden tables and chairs to allow pupils to work outside. In time, tubs of flowers and trees will be planted; in the meantime, a metal sculptured "tree of knowledge" is attached to the exterior of one wall.

The environmental studies room is one of a number of purpose-built classrooms. Mr McLean's mantra is that none of the design should be there for aesthetic reasons but to fulfil a purpose. There is an art-room with wet and dry sections and a door which opens out to the playground. Another room will be the soft play area for P1-3s and has been specially floored. It is being used as a music room until a centre is built - with independent access outside school hours, and a covered walkway from the school.

The sports hall-cum-auditorium is state of the art. Funded partly by Sport-Scotland, it is designed as a community facility, offering everything from international standard basketball courts to three large cages which can store equipment below floor level and then be raised to different heights to form a stage.

The dining hall - "restaurant" - offers space, light, proper crockery and cutlery, and trolleys for pupils to stack their trays. There is a mini-kitchen, where the children have their own cooker, fridge and preparation area.

Dalry Primary is a two-stream school. Mr McLean's original idea was to have one stream of P1-7 classes working in the traditional square classroom, while the other worked in rooms of different shapes. So the P1s would work in a circular room; the P2s in a semi-circular room; the P3s a triangular one; and so on. But in one of the many discussions on what was practical from a teaching perspective, the idea was abandoned.

Instead, each classroom (7mx7m) has its own theme, exemplifying some aspect of learning. A language room has one wall displaying a giant A, while the other side contains the 1,000 most common words. A maths room has one wall made up of a giant abacus, while another shows a magic square of numbers stencilled on timber. A history room contains the names and dates of seven famous inventors from the West of Scotland. And the geography room has one wall with a Dymexion globe on the outside, and a closed-up globe on the other, while a third wall displays an aerial view of Dalry. (See panel)

The library is open plan, built in a circle, the shelves on the outside containing the non-fiction books; those on the inside, the fiction. Seating inside is arranged in a circle. Interspersed in the bookshelves are display boxes to contain objects related to a book or project the pupils are studying - an idea borrowed from Edinburgh libraries.

An associate nursery mirrors many of the themes, but in pastel, calming colours. It offers places for children aged 0-3 years, targeting the more vulnerable families, with purpose-built spaces for parent workshops and visiting specialists.

But it is the toilets that are the headteacher's pride and joy. When the children were asked during the planning process what an ideal school would contain, many of them identified better toilets. Ms Denningberg pushed through the idea of unisex toilets. Circular pods, with individual toilets, are placed at various points near the classrooms.

"In this day and age, it is common for P1 boys never to have been in male toilets. The urinals terrified some of them, especially the Victorian ones which spouted water. But when you have a mainly female staff, they don't have the right equipment to explain what to do. Boys' toilets were where a lot of the behaviour problems came from - they felt it was a teacher-free zone."

What do the children and staff think of their new schools?

Lee Salisbury, P3, thinks it's good "because there are better toilets and there aren't doors on the classrooms."

Cameron Burns, P7, says: "It's got a good computer room 'cos it's got a balloon round it."

And Carol-Ann Brown, principal teacher, sums it up: "It's got the wow factor. I'm sure it's stimulating because there are the walls and the children are very excited about going into all the new areas.

"We are having to adapt our teaching style to the noise level, because it is open plan."

A class of its own

A language room shows the word Dalry in British Sign Language.

A maths room contains a series of wall drawings by artist Gary Woodley, illustrating where a sphere would intersect with the walls if it was placed in the exact centre of the room.

An art history room is designed to stimulate creativity, with seven quotations from famous artists. If pupils wanted to know more about the words of M. Davis: "Do not play what is there - play what is not there", they would be directed to find out for themselves whether M. Davis stands for Miles Davis, the jazz trumpeter.

The neighbouring arts-themed room has one wall made of wooden slats, each tuned to a different tone - like a hanging xylophone, while another wall displays seven "architectural idioms".

The nature room shows the geometry of an unfolding leaf and will open up onto a garden which has yet to be built.

A "brainy" classroom, as it has been dubbed, shows a picture of a brain alongside seven words describing different processes: dreaming, imagining, learning, understanding, perceiving, thinking and sensing.

In the neighbouring room, a prism is suspended by the door. When the teacher introduces a mirror to the room, it reflects different colours.

Various colours are mixed and overlaid on the windows of the room next door.

Another classroom has a large picture of two Freisian cows, photographed by Dutch artist Klaas Hoek. Mrs Denningberg is not sure why this has been chosen as a theme, but adds that the class teacher and pupils are quite fond of their cows now.

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