Design intervention can work wonders for schools

Congratulations to Foster and Partners for its success in the prestigious Riba Stirling Prize with London’s 40 St Mary Axe – better known to locals as the Gherkin. As well as being a magnificent feat of architecture and engineering, the building also ticks the boxes for design, the ‘product’ content alone of its highly mechanised structure highlighting innovation in sustainable design.

Though its interiors, as seen on TV, make no attempt to break away from the conservatism of the City – with a bar for occupants at an altitude of 180m that would seem to be a missed opportunity to create a memorable venue for most restaurateurs – it nonetheless has become an identifier for the capital. Like the British Airways London Eye by Marks Barfield Architects, its power as a graphics symbol on the skyline is greater than most attempts to date to brand London and it heralds the future, rather than dwelling on the traditions of the past.

But as significant for design is the presence of Bexley Business Academy on the Stirling Prize shortlist. Also created by Foster & Partners, this school in the run-down south-east London suburb of Thamesmead represents a leap forward for the cause of providing better learning environments for schoolkids.

Though its façade is forbidding, internally the school shuns isolated classrooms, offering open-plan ‘alcoves’ and other flexible learning spaces instead. And though TV presenter Kevin McCloud said the glass and steel surfaces tend to be conducive to noise, teachers and students interviewed maintained that it isn’t a distraction. The building seems to work.

The joy of the prize scheme is that the school is more widely known than it might otherwise have been. There is a move among key educationalists to change things, but if parents and students are made more aware of what can be achieved through better design, then politicians and school governors will be under greater pressure to speed up the process.

The Bexley school isn’t the only case where design’s intervention in education is paying off. The Sorrell Foundation continues to improve life in a number of schools through its Joinedupdesignforschools initiative, with the help of £1m Government funding. Meanwhile, the Design Council is due to unveil its ‘360 degree’ flexible classroom at a school in Liverpool shortly, following the success, not least in publicity terms, of the school desk designed by the Azumis for Keen as part of a Design Council initiative.

These bids are great for design, bringing it into a lucrative market crying out for creativity. But they also benefit teachers and students, highlighting the positive effect design can have on the future.

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