Learning From Schools: Three Key Lessons

4 January 2016

Learning from Schools Book

In his book “Learning from Schools” Peter Clegg reflects on lessons learned in school design and suggests a road map for the future.

The last ten years have been witness to radical changes in the design and procurement of schools. First the development of the Academies programme and then of Building Schools for the Future has allowed educationalists, teachers and architects to rethink the very idea of what constitutes a school.

However, the capital programme for schools has become a political football and with the demise of BSF we are essentially back to where we were ten years ago when we first began to question whether the new schools we were building were actually fit for purpose. In the intervening period, space standards and allowable building costs have increased and then decreased again. Acoustical standards and sustainability targets have become more ambitious, and then more relaxed. The 2009 Government statement that all new schools would need to be zero energy by 2016 has been completely forgotten. The schools building programme has become a saga of raised and shattered hopes.

With the ending of the BSF programme, 715 schools (one fifth of the schools in the country) which had been promised new buildings had their hopes devastated by a political volte-face. Our analysis of those schools that were promised new buildings, and then had them cancelled, shows an abrupt 12.5% decline in performance: a decline most surely caused by disillusionment brought about by Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the programme.

So, apart from the dangers of playing politics with the schools building programme, what are the most important lessons we have we learned from the ten years of new Academies and BSF?

Firstly, we have seen the development of a new generation of high-density inner- city schools, often built on tight urban sites, or constrained by available space because of the need to build new schools while existing ones remain operational. A lack of space on the ground means we need to build taller: sharing circulation spaces such as atria rather than spreading classrooms out along corridors. We have developed schools with half-buried assembly halls and roof spaces as playgrounds, and schools have once again become a part of the urban fabric, with shop windows onto the street. The impact on pedagogy has yet to be assessed but, particularly in inner city areas, schools have become physically and psychologically a part of the community they serve. Intriguingly this situation is more like the first generation of secondary schools built a century ago, where school buildings had a strong urban character and community significance.

Secondly, we have learned the value of close dialogue between architects and teachers. Some of the most successful schools we have built are the result of a shared design process. When there is a lack of unity between the staff,  when pedagogy is imposed from above, we have seen schools fail. The dialogue of change and regeneration is immensely useful to architects as well as teachers and champions of the vision of the school but radical change needs to be managed well. We know that insistence on more open plan space per se simply doesn’t work but with an engaged staff and strong leadership the design of the school can contribute to an exciting transformation in pedagogy.

Thirdly, we have seen space standards rise and then fall again by 10-15% and building costs rise and fall by 35 -50%.  At the beginning of the century we were building schools that were not only uninspiring but hardly fit for purpose, built to minimum standards and minimum cost. The attention focussed by the Government on the school estate as a potential generator of change within the education system led to value being placed on the design of decent quality buildings.

Ten years ago, for example, the fresh air ventilation rates for a school were 3 litres per second per person, as opposed to 10 litres per second per person for office workers!  New schools consisted of little more than cramped classrooms with no storage space, which were disheartening to teachers, particularly those used to larger spaces. And we have always known that narrow corridors and stairways, and poorly designed toilets are spaces where bullying occurs, but the space standards could afford little else. Having first raised aspirations and standards, both are now falling so fast that we aren’t even going to benefit in the future from the boost in attainment that merely the promise of a new school could inspire.

The best schools produced during the last ten years have genuinely transformed education and brought new dignity and freedom to the teaching profession. It is ironic that, as we enter a period of growth in demand for school places, the like of which we have not seen since the early seventies, we will be building new schools that fail to meet the standards we set ten years ago, and that are unlikely to benefit from ten years of unique experience in re-thinking school design.

Peter Clegg

‘Learning from Schools’ is available to purchase here