Design Seminar: Schools

Experts pull up a chair at our round table to discuss issues that are determining the look, shape and feel of schools for students and teachers.

All Photography: Gareth Gardner

Taking part were:
Theresa Dowling
(chair), editorial director, FX Magazine
Tim Aldred director, CleverSpaces
Richard Blackwall CEO, Bisley
Richard Crosby director, Blacc Consulting
Nicola Maytum principal, John Madejski Academy
Morag Morrison partner, Hawkins\Brown
Lee Nightingale director, KSS Architects
Mike Paskin consultant, Mike Paskin Consultants
Greg Penoyre senior partner, Penoyre and Prasad
Nicola Simpson business & operations director, Sheffield UTC Academy Trust
James Vaux-Anderson EFA framework delivery director, Bowmer & Kirkland
Alan Ward divisional director NCS, Bisley

When the Zaha Hadid-designed Evelyn Grace Academy in South London won the 2011 Stirling Prize for Architecture, it was something of a landmark moment in how we think of school buildings. For many years, function and cost had been the primary factors in designing schools, but this project was a high-profile indicator of how these aspects do not have to be exclusive of deeper consideration for aesthetics and how the space works in and around the building.

Since then, another school – Burntwood School, also in south London – has also gone on to Stirling Prize success for its creator Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. But this high profile acknowledgement should not be misconstrued simply as a sign of efforts to make our schools look better. There is a growing interest from all stakeholders in the education section to deliver better, more efficient, more effective schools that have the longevity and flexibility to meet future needs, however broad and diverse they may become.

For the first time FX brought together a panel of experts drawn from all corners of the educational sphere for a wide-ranging discussion, hosted at the central London offices of Bisley Office Furniture to examine the role of design in past decades of transforming schools, and how fresh ideas are setting the tone for the future.

Alan Ward, BisleyAlan Ward, Bisley

A crucial point was addressed right from the start: What part does design play in the education process? Consultant Mike Paskin said: ‘Does design affect learning? Yes, but I would also add that it is just part of the system. The whole process has to mesh together, including learning content and how it’s delivered, the objective and purpose, to create an environment that is conducive to learning, and hopefully a funding regime that gives you the tools you need to do the job.’

The political agenda

The point was raised that the very starting point of being able to design for the sector – the actual brief for delivering education – is often fundamentally wrong, and that the real issues facing the country are not all being addressed by a curriculum formed by a government based on political beliefs and blended with input from selected educationalists.

Alan Ward, divisional director NCS at Bisley, said: ‘The UK is relatively unique in not having a single definition of what education actually is. So, if you try to drill down and ask in this country “what is the purpose of education”, you won’t be able to get a consistent answer.’

Lee Nightingale, KSS ArchitectsLee Nightingale, KSS Architects

Tim Aldred, director at CleverSpaces, pointed out that when it comes to educational priorities, the political agenda shifts as the political landscape evolves: ‘The amount of money being spent on buildings, on education, and investment in research on education, has reached quite a low point and that’s quite demoralising for the rest of the industry. Despite this, the ability of our industry is great, and the ability of the children is great, but the limitations in education are largely brought because it is controlled by politics.’

Paskin added: ‘The vast majority of industry says that there is a skills’ shortage because many people entering the job market haven’t the skills or understanding required. There is a political will to boost industry and yet there is this massive disconnect between the two. Right now, academic achievement is the benchmark, rather than a focus on creating people who can find and gather knowledge, and then apply it in a practical way.’

Nicola Simpson, Sheffield UTC Academy TrustNicola Simpson, Sheffield UTC Academy Trust

Nicola Simpson, business and operations director at Sheffield UTC Academy Trust, said: ‘We’re trying to address that within UTCs [University Technical Colleges] where students of course still have to do their normal, core academic subjects, but they also do specialist employer-led learning, which is embedded throughout the curriculum. When setting up a new UTC, it’s important to remember that it’s not a university or a college, and it’s not a normal school. It’s a blend of all of those, and you need to create an environment that makes students enthusiastic and keen to learn. Equally, it has to be practical in terms of being able to run the curriculum and function as a school for the younger students.’

She added that realism and experience is vital on any education design project – particularly from those directly involved in educating students who can offer input into the sometimes quite large gaps between an ideal design scenario and the often harsher reality of managing different groups of students and varying age ranges.

Fundamental questions

‘I can relate to these points quite a lot, but the questions you are raising are pretty fundamental,’ said Greg Penoyre, senior partner at Penoyre and Prasad Architects. ‘Every time we do a project, we’re talking about those questions as if they’re new. How can this be? Well, presumably because it’s really difficult, and learning from experience is a bumpy process, but it is still quite extraordinary really. For me as a designer it’s great in some ways, as it’s interesting and motivating. But when it comes to key questions such as what size groups do students best learn in, you would think by now we might have decided this sort of point once and for all.’

Nicola Maytum, John Madejski AcademyNicola Maytum, John Madejski Academy

Crosby suggested: ‘If you were to ask several head-teachers this question then you would get several answers. One of the challenges is that the average “job expectancy” for a head is about seven years, whereas we’re building schools to last 30 years or more.’

How feasible is it to build long-term thinking into school projects when both short and medium-term politics and ‘here and now’ budget pressures dictate many of the key design and construction decisions? The situation has led to missed opportunities within a lot of schools, believes Lee Nightingale, director of KSS Architects. ‘There are schools where you would ideally like to enable the teaching space to be used in a different way just by making it a little bit bigger, but there’s not the space to do that. So, I’ve felt a bit torn on some projects where, on the one hand, you’re undeniably improving things by replacing what might previously have been a very poor school building with something new and far better, but on the other hand feeling that for just a little bit more space and budget, it could have been so much better. ‘I used to enjoy talking to educationalists.

Richard Crosby, Blacc ConsultingRichard Crosby, Blacc Consulting

We used to learn a lot through different types of teaching and how they could teach. At the moment, that interaction is more limited, sometimes to an hour or two with the head or senior management, and that’s all you’re able to have in terms of direct input from them.’

Design decisions

So, who really makes the design decisions in school buildings? Nightingale said: ‘A lot of our work is procured through contractor-led frameworks. There are opportunities where we work with local authorities directly in putting a feasibility study together, and there are other, larger schemes which are residentially led where we are able to influence what shape the educational aspect could be. So there’s a real mixture of how much design input we’re able to have. Often for the raw projects that come through contractor-led programmes, it doesn’t seem to be within our gift to even challenge the cost spreadsheet.

‘One of the positives is the robustness of materials generally in that the “design for life” period is pretty good and the contractors on board are able to carry out the work to a high standard and in a timely fashion, so I’m not concerned about the longevity of schools. But it is sometimes difficult to be in a consortium and be told “this is the money and that’s all there is to play with”. In that situation, it leaves us relatively unarmed in the ability to improve what is set out as a school.’

James Vaux-Anderson, Bowmer & KirklandJames Vaux-Anderson, Bowmer & Kirkland

Bisley’s Alan Ward added: ‘The language that an educator might use to talk to an architect might be quite different to how they might speak with a contractor – where a contractor is more about certainty and the architect is more about creativity. In other words, while the architect might be looking at it from the point of view of how can we use the space most effectively, a contractor might be most concerned with how much will the project cost and how soon can I get it finished, and yet typically it might be a contractor that leads a project.’

So should it be the schools themselves who make all the decisions? Simpson suggested it may not be quite that simple: ‘You shouldn’t have too much involvement from a head or an academy trust because if they’re too focused on their own individual vision then it can jeopardise whether or not the building is still fit for purpose once that head or trust moves on further down the line.

Lee Nightingale, KSS ArchitectsLee Nightingale, KSS Architects

‘Sometimes, we get bogged down in some of the educational detail, such as how big or small should the learning zone be or what technology should we have in the building, and yet we miss some of the basics. Ultimately, educators will fit to the space and deliver education within that space. What I’ve been more interested in are the open spaces, the break-out spaces, and the large spaces.

Classrooms we can sort out, but we’re often constrained by the dining rooms, the main halls, and the sports halls. These are the areas that, if wrong, can cause all sorts of logistical headaches in a school.’

A multitude of uses

Flexibility has also become the name of the game – it’s not just universities that have diversified the way in which its buildings are used throughout the year, with activities out of term time. The same has been happening in schools too. Nicola Maytum, principal at the John Madejski Academy in Reading, said: ‘Like a lot of schools, we’ve had to do this simply because budgets are so tight. The buildings have become increasingly well-used by the local and wider community during the evenings and at weekends and this is something that has to be a consideration. Yes, the building has to be fit for purpose for the school’s pupils first and foremost, but it also has to be suitable for this additional community use. The additional income that these uses provide is hugely important to any school nowadays.’ The subject raised the point of whether there is a good case for coming up with a business plan for creating schools in a larger or ‘different’ way in order to be in a position to maximise these potential benefits.

Mike Paskin, Mike Paskin ConsultantsMike Paskin, Mike Paskin Consultants

Clever Spaces’ Tim Aldred said: ‘Further Education colleges are being encouraged to go away from vocational teaching as they get far more money from non-vocational teaching.

I don’t think we are investing enough in design from the education sector’s point of view. The builders are the ones who are investing most in design, and that is where the drivers for efficiency are happening. They are efficient and forcing designers to think along similar lines. I’m not necessarily saying I agree with it because it does stifle creativity to some extent, certainly when it comes to the interior design side of schools. Ultimately, it comes back to the point about getting the initial brief wrong for these kinds of buildings.’

Penoyre replied: ‘I don’t disagree with what you have said, but I do think you get what you ask for – or rather, if you don’t ask for what you want then you probably won’t get it. So, if the right question was asked in the first place, then that highly efficient building industry might well deliver the right solution.

‘What we seem to have in the schools building world is a very opinions-based briefing process that is often led by charismatic individuals or busy initiatives. It’s not a very scientific process and it’s certainly not always a very well-informed process. It’s surprising how many of the clients we work with on large projects have never done it before, so they know rather less about it than those they’re working with. So, in a school it’s tricky – you don’t necessarily think hard enough about the dining room because you’re so focused on the science department or whatever.

Tim Aldred, CleverSpacesTim Aldred, CleverSpaces

‘I don’t know what the solution to this is, but perhaps we need to go back upstream and think more about what it is that you have to do to create a place that gives people a decent time at school. If you can motivate both the kids and the teachers then they will both flourish. There are a lot of details that have to go into making that happen, and a lot of our energy as designers goes into trying to answer very vague questions that appear to have come to the surface for the very first time.’

Delivering an exciting and engaging space is a noble aim, but how radical can design be when it comes to a school? Can a school be designed with the same freedom and flair that, say, a hotel might enjoy? Simpson said: ‘Teachers can be quite set in their ways and, for some, taking them out of their comfort zone could create a little uncertainty. At a UTC like ours, you have a real blend of the traditional classroom with the very creative spaces that are really flexible. It’s about making sure you have enough of the classrooms that you can teach English, science and the other more traditional subjects but with other more practical, flexible spaces as well.’

Richard Blackwall, BisleyRichard Blackwall, Bisley

Richard Crosby, director at Blacc Consulting, said: ‘I’ve seen some schools with really imaginative use of space, especially in terms of the way furniture has been used with it. Getting that right can give you a lot more space to play with, so it really is about getting the design right, allowing certain parts of a room to flex to meet varying needs.’

Focus on furniture

Paskin agreed that compromising on furniture had been one of the frustrations on past projects: ‘The actual “stuff” that people interact with in the most personal way was often the thing that we ended up spending the least amount of time and money on.’

Morag Morrison, Hawkins\BrownMorag Morrison, Hawkins\Brown

Aldred pointed out: ‘As a proportion of budget spent on furniture, fittings and equipment, we spend less than half now than we did 15 years ago in terms of pounds and pence. In terms of “value”, it’s probably less than that. It has a demoralising effect for teaching staff and a detrimental effect on learning. My personal point of view is that if you provide a shed but fill it with good quality equipment then it would be possible to teach to a high standard. I’m sorry, but it’s less about the architecture for me.’

Nightingale added: ‘The furniture issue is a really important one. In a lot of successful education centres in the Netherlands it is less about the architecture and more about what they were sitting on and what they touched.

For the pupil age-range of five to 12 for example, I think that kind of thing is particularly important in making these enjoyable spaces to be in. It’s not so much about the volume of the space, but really how you interact with it.’

It is potentially an area lacking in research, suggested Aldred: ‘There have been a number of studies on the use of colour on behavioural patterns, but there hasn’t to my knowledge been any recognised studies in the UK specifically on the use of furniture in schools.

Richard Crosby, Blacc ConsultingRichard Crosby, Blacc Consulting

There have of course been domestic studies on anatomics, and there has been lots of research into office design – which ultimately gave birth to many of the health-and-safety standards that we all operate with nowadays.

But regarding behavioural patterns and the quality of furniture, the only studies that we can refer to studies from Scandinavia, where they have a long-term view on this. They spend four or five times more on what they sit on in schools than we do in the UK. I don’t think that is really about efficiencies. It is more to do with us not placing enough emphasis on the interior view of patterns of behaviour. I believe we’ve failed. Although school interiors are efficient, and probably better value than they have been in the past, I don’t believe they are appropriate.’

Tim Aldred, CleverSpacesTim Aldred, CleverSpaces

Building quality James Vaux-Anderson, EFA framework delivery director at construction firm Bowmer & Kirkland, believes that from an environmental point of view, schools have never been better: ‘We’ve never delivered more efficient schools, with better internal spaces for kids to learn in than there are now. And we’ve never delivered them at such low cost. It’s simple, efficient, and better now than the BREEAM excellent-rated schools that we used to deliver, so that side of things is a rip-roaring success.

‘CO2 levels are right down, lighting is significantly improved, daylight is maximised. If you walked into these classrooms you probably wouldn’t notice any difference, but the space is fundamentally more advanced.

Theresa Dowling, FX magazineTheresa Dowling, FX magazine

‘From a quality of design point of view, we’ve done a massive amount of research on the projects we’ve done in education over the past 40-50 years. If you look at all the key spaces that we have, they’ve flexed 2 or 3 sq m each, so the focus on delivering “cowsheds” and the whole idea of fixed budgets is all a bit of an illusion, because what it comes down to is great architecture, and a vision to be able to use the money more sparingly.’

He added that how far you can take this often depends on client vision – whether they’ve been through the process before – and if the PDs and technical advisers understand the quality issues that introducing a bit of “flex” can bring about: ‘If you have these elements, you end up with a fundamentally different end result.'

Greg Penoyre, Penoyre and Prasad ArchitectsGreg Penoyre, Penoyre and Prasad Architects

One of the big challenges in making the case for designing schools differently is in demonstrating the return on investment that certain ideas could bring about. With the public sector spending reined in as tightly as ever, being able to prove the benefits can often be the key. Penoyre said: ‘The big question of whether the learning environment can improve results is almost impossible to answer with numbers. It’s the same in healthcare. We do a lot in that sector and the question is always “will doing it this way improve healing?” If it’s a decent building then people will feel better, but how do you actually prove it?

Alan Ward, BisleyAlan Ward, Bisley

‘The same is true in schools. If you work that down into the detail of whether it’s the CO2 level in the room or the food they had for lunch, it’s difficult to come up with research that delivers the kind of hard evidence to satisfy the government in terms of informing them where to spend money. So, there is a lot of research; it’s just that it’s quite scattergun.’

A modular approach

Crosby added: ‘There are ways of making sure lessons can be learned though. Constructors are taking what they’ve done before and learnt from those past projects to do things better, but the way things are actually being procured is often on an ad-hoc basis.

Nicola Maytum, John Madejski AcademyNicola Maytum, John Madejski Academy

What I’m working on modularising schools. It involves starting with a baseline for a school that can be completely made offsite and allows a whole drop-down list of options, much like choosing the spec for a car. So, the school can choose what it wants, but allows us to deliver in a fraction of the time. We’re still talking about the same performance specs and they are still steel and concrete buildings.

It’s just that it can all be industrialised and made more efficient by putting together £300m-worth of schools, all in one batch, and almost turning it into a manufacturing rather than a construction process.

Nicola Simpson,Sheffield UTC Academy TrustNicola Simpson,Sheffield UTC Academy Trust

‘Of course there has to be flexibility as each school is on a different site and with different requirements, but by taking out the flex that’s not needed it can bring about better quality buildings within existing budgets – and deliver them faster.’

‘We said earlier that the industry is efficient, well it isn’t compared to where it could be. The construction industry is seven times bigger than the car industry, so the benefits of operating a little more like that sector does could be significant.’ Paskin added: ‘Ideally, the industry will be designing buildings that are flexible enough that they can be adapted for use as an office, school or whatever. That will help add the scale too.’

Morag Morrison, Hawkins\BrownMorag Morrison, Hawkins\Brown

Maytum posed the question of managing the movement of people within a school building: ‘In our school you can be talking about 1,000 or maybe even 2,000 people moving at any one time, through doors, along corridors, within spaces. Has there been research into the issue of “flow”?’ Penoyre said: ‘It’s a really good point. Yes, there has been research, and there is a firm called Space Syntax that has helped us in the past to understand this issue a little more clearly.’

Vaux-Anderson suggested that the challenge of managing large flows of people at the same time is why so-called ‘superblocks’ are one of the most efficient ways of doing it.

James Vaux-Anderson, Bowner & KirklandJames Vaux-Anderson, Bowner & Kirkland

‘Lots of people criticise superblocks for various reasons, but when you have 1,500 to 1,800 kids all trying to move around a space at the same time they can be the answer. You can end up with a building that seems fairly standard, but that’s because quite often they are actually the best solution to the problem.’

Maytum asked: ‘But is that the best solution from a behavioural point of view? You’re dealing with a lot of young people and, in some really challenging communities, if you have a layout that does not combat potential problems that makes it harder for staff to manage.’

Mike Paskin, Mike Paskin ConsultantsMike Paskin, Mike Paskin Consultants

Such superblock designs usually have five staircases – a central space along with stairs in each corner of the building – to enable flow between levels. Vaux-Anderson said: ‘Where you have a client who has already built one or two of these – perhaps part of a trust with someone dedicated to finding out what did or didn’t work for other academies – then they understand the best practice in getting the best out of them. So, rather than having a central base for teachers, they might be dispersed around the school to enable passive supervision. That can work really well, but fundamentally it’s about the client and architect discussing what the needs are, what the kids are like at that school, and how best to manage that building’s layout. If you don’t have that dialogue then you can easily end up with something that’s really vanilla and which doesn’t always meet the needs of the client.’

Theresa Dowling FX magazineTheresa Dowling FX magazine

Nightingale raised concerns that a lot of these superblocks are being presented to schools without having that degree of discussion: ‘I don’t think the day-to-day running and isolating problems have necessarily been described to them in every case. I’m concerned that projects in which that conversation has taken place in any detail is fairly rare.’

Of course, it is worth remembering what is at stake here. As the discussion touched on, politicians may come and go, but the desire to create positive learning environments for students – and the right kind of workplaces for teachers – is a constant. Design has a major role in the future direction of education in the UK. Maytum said: ‘Although we talk a lot about the curriculum, schools do a lot more than just deliver this. Sport and art are so important to us and are a big reason why most schools have extended school days. That’s why flexible spaces with high-quality interiors are so critical – all parties involved in delivering schools have such a big part to play.’

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