New school ties

The Government’s ’free schools’ initiative could lead to a greater variety of schools being set up and to more diversity in school branding. Angus Montgomery goes back to the classroom to see for himself

One of the unexpected effects of new Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans for the national school system may be to shift perceptions of education design away from being predominantly about built environment and classroom design to include a greater appreciation of individual school brands as well.

One of Gove’s key policies is the introduction of so-called ’free schools’, an initiative which will allow groups of parents to set up their own schools free, the Department for Education says, from much of the bureaucracy that currently surrounds education. With these independent, state-funded schools being out of local authority control and not being constrained by the National Curriculum, there is likely to be a greater variety in the types of schools being set up – and hence a greater need for individual branding.

Corporate brands may also get involved, with English football’s Premier League already reported to be interested in taking part. Running in parallel to Gove’s drive to promote free schools has been the Government’s scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme, set up by the Labour Government to drive investment in school built environments across the country.

Completed BSF projects include Penoyre & Prasad’s Frederick Bremner School in east London and Anshen & Allen’s Titus Salt School in Bradford. The importance of well-designed school environments is accepted by most commentators, with a recent poll on showing that 88 per cent of readers believe that better-designed school environments lead to better-behaved and better-educated children.

Meanwhile, two school projects – DSDHA’s Christ’s College school in Guildford and DRMM’s Clapham Manor Primary School in south London (neither of which were completed under BSF) – have been shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize. Other elements of design in schools are often not as well recognised. Mark Hurel, creative director of Radius Brand Consultants, which has recently developed brands for Willow Brook Primary School and George Tomlinson Primary School, both in Leyton, east London, suggests there is ’a lack of aspiration’ among many schools, which he says is particularly obvious in badly designed websites.

Hurel says, ’Because budgets in this area are so tight, heads can look for value for money over everything else.’ North Devon College could hardly be accused of lacking aspiration when it engaged global consultancy Interbrand in 2008 to rebrand the institution, which was merging with East Devon College.

Following a series of workshops with college stakeholders, Interbrand developed the name and brand Petroc, which is being applied across the college. At the time of the brand’s unveiling in September 2009, then-Interbrand head of verbal identity Andy York told Design Week, ’We didn’t feel it was appropriate for us to turn up as a London consultancy and say, “This is the name you should have.”

We developed a series of workshops so that they could tell us what name they wanted. Petroc came up in nearly all the workshops.’ Almost a year following the launch, David Shuttleworth, head of learner recruitment at Petroc’s directorate for curriculum and innovation, says, ’We’ve created a fantastic new brand.

We started with two wholly different colleges. Now – a year on – we are one.’ With the Petroc work, Interbrand had a brief to create a new brand for two colleges coming together. With its work at Willow Brook Primary School, Radius wanted to create a new brand that would, according to account director Rachel Williams, live up to the headmaster’s refusal ’to conform to expectations of a school in Leyton’.

The consultancy was given an open brief – ’The only stipulation was that we weren’t allowed to change the uniform colour,’ says Hurel. The school ran workshops with pupils to engage the children with the new branding.

The branding for both primary schools Radius has worked with will launch next month with the new school year. Hurel says, ’School branding has to appeal to everyone – pupils, teachers and parents – and lift the school to a new level.’

The Sorrell Foundation has been working since 1999 to encourage good design and involve young people in the design process. Its Joined Up Design for Schools initiative, launched in 2000, has seen the completion of projects including a redeveloped sixth-form space at the Heart of England School, Coventry, by Eldridge Smerin, and a new uniform for Aldercar Community Language College, Nottingham, created by fashion designer Paul Smith.

The initiative sees pupils engaged as clients in the design process. Sorrell Foundation cofounder Lady Frances Sorrell says, ’Typically, we worked with the children for three to four months – you need to give them time to engage, you can’t just do a quick workshop.’

Sorrell says the process sometimes threw up surprising results. She says, ’The interesting thing is that children are often more conservative than the staff. At one particular school we worked on the children wanted navy blue, and for case studies they were showing identities of banks.’

Sorrell says that while headteachers (understandably) have very strong visions about where their schools should be going, they often need designers to help them realise this. She says, ’Most headteachers have a very strong ethos, but very few know how to express that.’

How to set up a free school

  • Contact the New Schools Network for information and advice on setting up a free school
  • Submit a proposal to the Department for Education
  • On approval of proposal, submit a business plan to the DfE
  • Sign contract with the Education Minister to release start-up funding
  • The first free schools will open in September 2011

Information from the Department for Education

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