The fabric of education

Education has been targeted by the current Government as one of the principle causes needing attention. Mike Evamy finds that a school’s environment has a surprisingly big effect on children and looks at some of the latest developments in this area.

Our schools are a mess. Based on media information, the image you might have of them is that they are full of hormonally supercharged, lumpen youths too big for their Fifties utility furniture who, instead of playing Top Trumps, exchange their security passes for heroin and help their teenage brothers steal the school computers every fortnight. Add to that a general scene of classroom mayhem and pupils dodging, Beirut-style, falling masonry, and the picture is complete. And that’s just the primary schools.

Things are not really this bad, but we worry a great deal, because worrying about the educational environment for your child is among the defining anxieties of the age. As time goes on, the stories get more unbelievable. The question has to be faced: if things are as bad as this now, what on earth can we expect from our schools in future?

The figures predict more of the same, only worse. For the next 25 years, the school population is forecast to rise. The ghetto-isation of poorly performing inner-city schools is under way. Where extra funding will come from no one knows, since the costs of healthcare and looking after the elderly are set to rise. It’s in the wintry light of these facts that some academics forecast a 21st century in which education is gained at home; children are taught by parents or personal tutors, plugged into a panoply of computer-based learning packages. These theories seem to ignore the fact that most parents have neither the time, skill, nor patience to teach their own offspring.

So, back to school it is then. But how do we go about improving the conditions in which children learn? It’s a matter that’s as important as class sizes and one on which opinion regularly fluctuates. Children are better than anyone at “reading” their environment. If you want them to feel good about themselves, you shouldn’t put them in a run-down setting that neglects their needs. What is being done now to make schools better, and how will the school of the future be different?

You rarely hear about it, but new schools are being built, and one of the most important advances has been the arrival of schools that use the building fabric to engage the interest of their children. Hampshire County Council is an acknowledged leader in the design of new primary schools, the demand for which has been fuelled by fast-growing conurbations such as Basingstoke.

The council’s planners and architects have worked hard to site schools at the heart of these new developments, much as churches used to occupy the centre of villages. Schools have been furnished with their own individual identities and approaches to learning, rather than duplicated systematically to established templates. Queen’s Inclosure School at Cowplain, Hampshire’s most published school development, offers young children an open environment and the chance to delve into activity areas tucked into bays and niches. At Woodlea School in Bordon, the architecture is less minimal and engages children through the interesting forms that dominate the design. Bishopstoke School near Eastleigh is constructed like a mini-village, featuring a central “market” space with classrooms leading off it.

“We’ve looked at most ways of organising schools,” says Joe Collins, one of Hampshire’s team leader architects. “The problem is what the educationalists want, which is always changing. Ten years ago they all wanted open planning; now they want a semi-enclosed environment.”

Collins and his team have had to consider ways to circumvent the tugs of war in educational philosophy. “We would find it difficult to build a school where the fabric could physically change, but one way you could accommodate changes would be to have more free space in a school. You could have core areas, and expansion spaces outside, with much less heating,” says Collins. This wouldn’t mean condemning children to shiver in Portakabins, but keeping building units in reserve that could be brought on-stream at short notice and maintained to as high a standard as the rest of the school.

Hampshire has also tried to bring children at school into greater contact with the environment outside. The glass atrium at Park School in Aldershot, says Collins, acts as a “valve” between indoors and outdoors. It makes children feel less locked up and invites them to see the grounds as part of the school.

This theme could play a major part in shaping new schools: the better use of school grounds for child development and to encourage environmental awareness. According to Learning Through Landscapes, a trust that promotes outdoor learning, there are links between the design and management of a space, and the way a child responds and behaves in the space. The meanings conveyed by the school environment make up what LTL calls the “hidden curriculum”. Children, says LTL’s Wendy Titman, are more sensitive to the signifiers of design – and, just as importantly, non-design – than many adults assume.

“It is incredible with children: they actually do read symbols within design as if it was total logic. They behave in a very logical way. You find schools with 30 acres of grounds, and two seats by the front door for visitors. And people wonder why kids roam around in mobs!” Earlier generations had squares of Tarmac and Percy Thrower in the Blue Peter garden. But thoughtful design, says Titman, could easily and affordably enrich the external fabric of new schools. There are many good examples already that include “hard” spaces for classes and meetings, and “soft” spaces with plants, ponds and wildlife.

Up until the Second World War, there was a history of classes being taken outdoors. Even in darkest, deepest Victorian Deptford, schools grew sunflowers in roof gardens. LTL claims that up to 50 per cent of the primary curriculum could be delivered outdoors, and 15 per cent can only be delivered outdoors. But are concerns about security too great for parents to allow it?

Titman says these worries are something of a myth. She recently ran a training conference for Stirling Council, the local authority that covers Dunblane. “Interestingly, it has resisted point blank to increase the ‘security’ around any of its schools. It won’t do it. It will not put up fences, it will not create prisons. It’s taken a sound and courageous stand against what the rest of the world seems to be doing in the wake of Dunblane, and which horrifies it.”

There are plenty of models for creating places that engage children more fully than in the past. But some schemes are going further, pioneering environmental schools. East Renfrewshire Council outside Glasgow has firm plans to build a new “eco-school” for over 900 children in the Newton Mearns area under the Private Finance Initiative. Having experienced its own “environmental and architectural disasters” of the Sixties and Seventies, the council is promising a school “with sustainable development at the heart of its design and curriculum”.

Closer to realisation is the “sustainable school” planned for a sloping greenfield site near Braintree in Essex, the result of a competition sponsored by the county council and the Design Council. Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris won and is developing designs with environmental engineers Atelier One and Atelier Ten, and landscape architect Jon Watkins. With a “green” roof, covered in moss and lichen to filter UV and provide insulation, and an array of energy-efficient heating and ventilation systems, it is hoped the school will inspire its 180 primary-age pupils.

“We’d like to make them more aware of how buildings adapt,” says AHMM partner Simon Allford. “For instance, the systems for natural ventilation and summer shading could be educational tools in themselves.” The building will appear to “touch the ground lightly”, standing possibly as a drum shape and disturbing the landscape as little as possible. Allford adds that there will be collaborations with furniture manufacturers to develop equipment using sustainable material sources.

To encapsulate the project’s model potential, the Design Council is recording the team-based design and procurement process for future schools to learn from. One aim is to change Department for Education and Employment rules so that maintenance is included in buildings costs. On that basis, says Allford, Great Notley Garden Village School, will be the cheapest school that AHMM has yet been involved with.

The project seeks to throw out a whole bunch of outdated attitudes. Allford says this might go as far as getting out of having to lay down a full-sized level football pitch. Essex man par excellence Terry Venables might not like it, but then Great Notley and schools like it might spell the end for Essex man and woman as we know them. Out with wine bars, fast cars and football: in with trees and bicycles.

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