Building a new future: Schools for the community

While funding for new state schools has all but stopped, projects have emerged that show great creativity in planning and design.


Words by Veronica Simpson

Cities all over the world are under ever greater pressure from rural to urban migration. Inevitably, as existing neighbourhoods densify, it places increasing strain on school provision.

London has seen more pressure on school places than most, with immigration adding to the educational population crunch already being caused by the UK capital's parents increasingly opting to stay in the city once their kids are of school age, rather than flee to the greener suburbs and satellite towns around them, which used to be the norm.

At a New London Architecture (NLA) conference four years ago, the assembled planners, local authority personnel and architects, were informed that London would be facing a shortfall of between 70,000 and 100,000 school places over the following four years. And yet, under the recent Coalition Government's austerity measures, next to no money was going to be forthcoming to provide accommodation for these extra pupils.

Four years down the line, how have these architects and educators responded? In the absence of public funds, greater resourcefulness in the location, expansion and refurbishment of schools and their facilities was called for and the response has become increasingly ingenious.

While some attendees at the NLA event felt the solution lay in cheaper, more formulaic school buildings that could be assembled as a 'kit of parts', with minor adjustments to suit different school populations, others have campaigned hard for schools to have their own character and civic presence, adding to the community both through their facilities and appearance. Locating schools on top of, underneath or around housing, sports facilities, religious buildings, libraries and community halls has opened up new avenues of funding, with local authority, community and developer budgets being juggled to try and achieve a win-win scenario for both school and the wider neighbourhood.

Faerder technical High school
Faerder technical High School

When done well, it weaves the surrounding population into the school's fabric works incredibly successfully, and vice versa. Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects (PTEa) has already demonstrated its skill in achieving the ultimate space-saving solution of versatile and good-quality school buildings intersecting with both civic and residential facilities, with the Tidemills Academy in London's Lewisham. Here it managed to create a compact but efficient primary school space that connects to and shares a local library and education centre; the school's sports, music and entertainment facilities are, in turn, shared with the community out of school hours. Additional funds for the scheme were raised by adding low-rise affordable housing and artist studios along one side of the school. Now, for Camden, PTEa has taken this idea further, with the development of an entirely self-funding school building in central London just a stone's throw from Euston Station.

This was an unusual model, says PTEa partner Dominique Oliver. 'Camden took a view that it would fund Netley School up front, which is quite interesting because a lot of local authorities are not in the position to do that. It was able to invest money into the scheme through its Community Investment Programme because it expected to get a capital return on it.'

Camden's Community Investment Programme has found money for schools, homes and community facilities by selling off or redeveloping sites or properties that had passed their usefulness. Another CIP scheme is being developed for Camden by Maccreanor Lavington (see case study) along a former railway sidings, but this time creating a whole new piece of West Hampstead for families to live, work, learn and play in.

Lee Centre, Bath
Lee Centre, Bath

Westminster City Council also commissioned PTEa to come up with a mixed housing and educational scheme, but with a different model - this time in conjunction with a developer and ARK Academy. The four-storey school building forms three sides of a courtyard, with a nursery to the west and a raised school hall at first-floor level, which creates a covered entrance to the playground in the courtyard. The residential block looks away from the school and on to Camden's canal.

Housing next to schools is something to be designed carefully. It's not an option that every education provider feels comfortable exploring - there are issues of child safety and sightlines that might unnerve both education clients and the wider community. Says Oliver: 'Outside of London, it's a more difficult model to make work. Where you have more space, the arguments for putting homes above schools are less tangible. It works for urban centres where space is at a premium. It works for London.

There's not much land available so you have to make the best use of it. I am seeing this model increasingly in other councils and boroughs, but it takes ambition from a local authority to drive it.' PTEa is currently working with Tower Hamlets and a developer plans to put a school on a new residential site, with a mosque as well.

Maccreanor Lavington is another practice that specialises in this kind of joined-up thinking. Realising that there was no more local authority money available for building new schools (it's a surprisingly little broadcast fact that under the current UK government, only free schools and academies can now get funding for buildings) the practice decided to bring a little community savvy into its extensive experience in masterplanning for new housing developments. So it has been working with Camden and other authorities to expand existing schools - a practice not outlawed by government policy, as long the authority can find the funds itself. Cash for the education component is often found through the sale of private housing within the complex - but not always (of which, more later).

Lee Centre, Bath
Lee Centre, Bath

Maccreanor Lavington's director of social infrastructure, Ann Griffin, says: 'I had my own practice until two years ago, focusing on social infrastructure projects. We decided to explore what could be a really exciting opportunity to look at what is a sustainable community.'

With Maccreanor Lavington's extensive experience in masterplanning and housing, plus Griffin's understanding of social infrastructure, it was in the perfect position to consider 'the wider impact of how all the social infrastructure can be factored in at the early stages so you don't make the wrong moves early on or you make the right moves possible. It's about being more aware of where the funding is coming from, where the pressures are coming from and how local authorities can find ways to respond to the current climate,' she says.

Kingsgate Primary School is one of three schemes of this type being developed by Camden, the other two being the aforementioned Netley Primary Campus (see case study) and a new £40m development at Somers Town, being masterplanned by DSDHA. While this may sound like a great solution, there are drawbacks, says Griffin: for one, 'You can only expand an existing school substantially with an outstanding management team to see the school through that expansion.'

Another is the need to tread a careful line between disposing of a council's assets and providing for its community.

Lee Centre, Bath
Lee Centre, Bath

Maccreanor Lavington has found another approach in Southwark, where raising cash from property construction is not possible. Two Victorian schools, with halls on every level too small for the school's expanding population, have been encouraged to use part of the school's land to build one large hall big enough for the whole school to use as an event space, for sports and dining - with a dedicated kitchen - and turn the smaller halls into classrooms with simple partitions. A cost- and space-conscious solution, 'most critically it supports the construction process on an occupied site,' says Griffin.

Where budget-juggling and cross-fertilisation of space and objectives isn't possible, sometimes new school buildings can be justified on the sheer quality of the design, as is the case with Feilden Fowles' Lee Centre, attached to Bath's Ralph Allen School. Since completion in 2014, the building has been festooned with awards and accolades. But before construction could even start there were major planning hurdles to overcome: the site was deemed to be sitting within the green belt surrounding a world heritage site; the proposal was to build on a sports field in an area of outstanding natural beauty. But planning permission was won due to the innovative environmental design and by setting the building into the limestone hillside.

It went on to be a National RIBA Award Winner in 2014, and qualified for the Stirling Prize long list as well as being named as one of the best 50 buildings in Britain in 2014. With a little creativity, ambition and joined-up thinking, it seems anything is possible.

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