A chance for joined-up design

A Government rebuilding programme and the Young Design Centre provide a big opportunity to rethink the design of schools, says Scott Billings

All secondary schools and half of all primary schools in England are to be rebuilt or renewed under the Government’s ambitious 15-year, £60bn Building Schools for the Future programme.

The scheme is trumpeted as the biggest single Government investment in schools for more than 50 years and represents a major opportunity to rethink the design of the country’s often outdated estate of school buildings, much of which was modelled on Victorian factories of the Industrial Revolution.

It is a chance to design away the problems that so often blight these environments: enclosed toilets which encourage bullying rather than privacy; institutional cream paintwork that leads to disorientation and environmental ennui; cacophonous, echoing dinner halls that thwart any moment of relaxation.

With this in mind, the BSF scheme is also a timely backdrop to the launch this month of the Sorrell Foundation Young Design Centre at Somerset House in London. The foundation already has about seven years of school design work under its belt through the Joinedupdesignforschools scheme. This is a design initiative that places school children as design consultancy clients in projects to improve their surroundings. From more than 100 of these collaborations, ten projects have been completed, with a further 16 in development using matched funding from the Department for Education and Skills. Designer collaborators on the projects to date include Paul Priestman, Thomas Heatherwick, Urban Salon, Richard Seymour, Kevin McCloud and Casson Mann, the consultancy behind the centre’s opening exhibition, What’s Next For Schools?

As well as housing the Sorrell Foundation’s relocated offices, the Thames-side centre will now act as a locus for Joinedupdesignforschools and its extended scheme, the Young Design Programme, which puts students of design at the centre of the process, with schoolchildren as clients and professional designers as project mentors.

Foundation co-chairman John Sorrell is hoping to entice to the venue the range of players involved in the Government’s school improvement initiative. Once there, exhibitions, seminars, lectures and a forthcoming research centre will be used to promote children’s involvement in the design decisions made about their schools. ‘We believe that schools should have children as a client team in whatever they do. They are the frontline users of education and their views are as valid as anyone’s,’ says Sorrell.

But will the centre reach out effectively to those running the school renewal programme? Will it help the co-design approach to really infiltrate the way that the BSF scheme and other projects are developed? According to Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for School, the body responsible for delivering BSF, ‘pupil voice’ is an essential part of the programme. ‘The Young Design Centre and programme will help pupils to make a valuable contribution to the design of their schools and will foster important links between the education sector and the design industry,’ he claims.

However, Sharon Plant, director of the Sorrell Foundation, acknowledges that this engagement can be ‘cursory or lip service’ rather than full consultation. Neither schools nor BSF consortiums are obliged to take a full co-design approach with pupils.

Cornwall County Council runs a number of ongoing Joinedupdesignforschools projects. Its head of capital strategy, Wendy Mason, says the co-design process has since been applied to additional school developments in the county, including plans for a Renaissance Science and Space Centre at Callington Community College. And, while Mason rates the process highly, she also notes that the Young Design Centre itself is ‘probably too far for most schools to think about visiting, unless it is part of a stay in London for other things’.

With funding for three years from the DfES, the Sorrell Foundation will start by targeting schools that already have BSF development money in place. It is hoped that about 2000 schoolchildren from across the country will visit the centre each year, as well as architects, private finance initiative contractors, developers, local authorities and students.

‘We realised we needed a centre to bring people to us after running a touring exhibition which launched at the Victoria & Albert Museum three years ago,’ says Sorrell Foundation co-chairman Frances Sorrell. The V&A exhibition was held under the museum’s then-director of projects and estates Gwyn Miles, now director of Somerset House.

Miles has brought in the initiative as part of her plans to ‘evolve new opportunities for learning’ at Somerset House. In fact, the Young Design Centre’s main exhibition space is annexed by a small warren of classrooms, IT facilities and a lecture space used for seminars and workshops.

But what may turn out to be a key draw to the venue is the planned archive of sound recordings, films, interviews, design briefs and presentations collected over the seven years of Joinedupdesignforschools. Compilation of this material will start this summer for a dedicated space at Somerset House. John Sorrell claims that the resulting library will provide an unprecedented document of ‘what young people want from design’.

• Sorrell Foundation Young Design Centre, based at Somerset House in London, acts as the hub of the Joinedupdesignforschools programme
• The Government’s Building Schools for the Future initiative is distributing £60bn to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools and half of primary schools in England over 15 years
• According to pupils, areas where school design could do better include: colour, dinner halls, reception areas, reputation and identity, social spaces, toilets and uniforms
• Contenders for the inaugural £5000 RIBA Sorrell Foundation Schools Award for excellence in school architecture will be on display at the Sorrell Foundation Young Design Centre this autumn
• For more information, visit www.thesorrellfoundation.com, www.somersethouse.org.uk, www.bsf.gov.uk

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