James Dyson is unveiling details of the Dyson School of Design Innovation, after a surprise decision by Bath & North East Somerset Council to give it the green light.
Although the future of the school is still not guaranteed – it needs to be approved by the Government Office for the South West and possibly the Secretary of State, which would delay construction by up to six months – Dyson is forging ahead with plans.
The building itself is a 9500m2, four-storey crescent of glass and steel. At the behest of English Heritage, one wing was redesigned to incorporate a brick facade of a former crane factory that currently stands on the site.
‘Part of Wilkinson Eyre’s brief was that the school should be open in design, so that different groups and disciplines can interact on projects,’ says The James Dyson Foundation manager Julia Curry. ‘There is a central atrium in which iconic engineering designs will be displayed on a rolling basis.’
The hands-on system of education intended for 14 to 19-year-olds at the school represents a radical departure from mainstream teaching methods.
‘Between 14 and 19 people get turned off some subjects and make important choices about their future, so it is vital that we reach that audience,’ says Curry.
If it goes ahead, about 2500 children and adults a week will attend day courses, evening classes and short courses on topics such as aerodynamics and product design. Students will work in open-plan laboratories, casting workshops, CAD studios and a rapid prototyping area. Dyson believes this ‘will mean young people can develop design solutions by experimenting and learning from mistakes’.
Instead of attending classes, students will work in teams on projects set by engineers from corporate backers including Rolls-Royce and Airbus, leading to what Dyson refers to as ‘real outcomes’.
‘We are trying to emulate as closely as possible an actual working environment,’ says a Dyson spokeswoman. ‘
Companies work in teams, so the students will as well. The controversial Wilkinson Eyre building split the council down the middle at last month’s planning meeting.
A tumultuous three-year history of delays, redesigns and repudiation in favour of an office block by Bath Council’s planning department, culminated in a lengthy debate on 19 March. It took in an impassioned speech by Dyson and the Environment Agency’s long-held concerns that the school, which backs on to the River Avon at South Quays, is at risk of flooding.
‘There was bit of an argument between Dyson and the EA, but I felt he proved his case against flooding,’ reports councillor Stephen Willcox, one of seven who voted in favour of the development. ‘The five who voted against it didn’t like the design. I didn’t like it either, but thought ultimately that the school will benefit Bath.’
Dyson believes passionately that the UK needs a design school. ‘We have to strengthen this “knowledge economy”.
China and India are producing hundreds of thousands of engineering graduates every year. The UK produces just 24000. In its heyday, South Quays produced hundreds of engineers for the city. Since its closure that figure has been zero. The school will be a huge boost to education,’ he says.
However, those hoping to see Dyson in the headmaster’s office will be disappointed.
‘I am afraid I will not be headmaster of the school,’ says Dyson. ‘My full-time job continues to be working with the 450 engineers and scientists at Dyson in Malmesbury.
However, I will be taking a seat on the board of governors. I will be pushing to make sure that the courses and opportunities for the students are first-rate and relevant to the world around us.’
Dyson chairs the board of trustees for the school charity, which includes vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell, local resident Professor Sir Christopher Frayling and chairman of the Science Museum Lord Waldegrave.
The emphasis on engineering may disappoint those who hoped the school would also cater for other design disciplines. Since the publication of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Creative Economy Programme Green Paper in February, it has become clear that design will not receive its own skills academy, as planned for the performing arts, animation and film sectors. Instead, the Design Council is leading plans for a Design Skills Alliance – a body that would assess and support design skills training providers.
A Design Council spokeswoman says, ‘In some sectors, such as engineering, there is a need for a hothouse like the Dyson School, but in terms of the broader design skills that is less true.’
Dyson School of Design Innovation
• Non-fee paying
• Provides engineering and product design diplomas, A-levels and GCSEs to 14- to 19-year-olds
• Provides continuing professional development for practising designers
• Students to attend one day a week, remaining at base schools for the remainder
• First-year students accepted mainly from the local catchment area
• No entrance requirements for first years
• 16- to 19-year-olds will have to meet as yet unspecified entrance requirements