Cherry Hinton school Cambridge - credit Daniel Shearing

How to approach school design

Are you involved in a new school building project? Irena Barker investigates the best approach to create exceptional results

"The design of schools is one of the most important areas of architecture, because it can have one of the greatest impacts on shaping lives. Yet, as an area of architectural practice, it has never received the attention it deserves.”

The influential Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger highlights this issue in his introduction to a new book released by Laurence King Publishing on 21st October, Planning Learning Spaces.

Hertzberger, who has devoted his career to creating innovative workplaces, cultural and educational buildings, is clearly still frustrated by the relatively lowly position of school design on the architectural agenda. While £50m schools designed by trendy architects have received much press in the past, the reality is: many new schools and refurbishments are distinctly off-the-peg and give little thought to the individual needs and desires of the staff and pupils inhabiting them.

“I see teachers less than satisfied with the results of the new buildings and refurbishments they’ve had. They feel they weren’t consulted or listened to and they have ended up with an environment which doesn’t optimise learning and teaching,” says Murray Hudson, co-editor of Planning Learning Spaces and founder of the Gratnells Learning Rooms Project.

Dissatisfaction can come from many places, he explains, from the colour of the walls to missing essential items in science labs such as sinks and fume cupboards. A lack of communication or a poorly drawn up brief can lead to these problems, says Hudson, who stresses the importance of taking a collaborative approach.

Moving away from one-size fits all

Terry White, co-editor of the book and chair of the Association for Learning Environments UK, explains that above all, architects need to be fully involved to understand the fundamentals about the learning community they are designing for. There needs to be, he stresses, a move away from the approach of “one size fits all”.

“A learning environment needs to be a reflection of the culture, the values and the ethos of the school. Usually, not enough attention is paid to this at the starting point of the design process.”

Architects, designers, authorities and school staff need to work together to reach a “learning brief” — a definition of how the school will approach learning and teaching. With this as a starting point, he says, those involved become true “partners” in the process, enabling them to come up with innovative and transformational solutions.

“Once you’ve done that there needs to be more detailed discussion about how you intend to organise children in those new spaces; how you intend to organise the whole school,” he says. “Are you going to work in teams? Are you going to work across year groups? How much specialist space, how much generic space will you need?”

Charettes — workshops where all stakeholders gather to come up with design ideas and solutions to particular problems — can be a mainstay of the consultation process, White says. He is keen to point out that this participatory approach to architectural design need not be time consuming or expensive. “It can be done relatively quickly,” he says. The climate at the moment is that consultation takes too long and is too complicated and the process will be slowed up, but we are keen to bust this myth.”

An example of good practice, White says, can be seen at Trumpington Community College in Cambridge, UK, a project that brings together a secondary school, a dedicated unit for students with autism and a community sports facility. Avanti Architects say that collaborative research between the design consultants, the client team and the wider community played a crucial part in the design and organisation of the building.

An extensive collaborative design process led to the school site being far more physically open for community use. It is free of boundary fencing with the lecture theatre located near the main entrance to allow for it to be booked by groups from outside school. Sports facilities too are open for public use. “The investment in time provided a design that is highly tailored to the needs of the school and the local community,” says Amir Ramezani, Avanti’s director.

So much for the principles of good collaboration in school design, but what of the design itself?

Firstly, designers must not forget to get the basics right.

Research has shown that it is vital that heat, light, air and acoustics are good in a school environment, to optimise learning. In his 2015 Holistic Evidence and Design study, Professor Peter Barrett concluded that classroom design accounted for 16 per cent of the variation in the learning progress of primary school children over a year. The study concluded that factors such as light, temperature and air quality accounted for about half of the impact on learning.

But around a quarter of the difference was down to “individualisation” factors. These included to what extent the spaces were flexible, allowing break out spaces for different activities. They also included the extent to which children could create a sense of ownership of their own classroom, such as display of work on the walls and name labels on pegs.

Re-thinking education

Expert contributors to Planning Learning Spaces stress that designing or refurbishing a school can be a perfect opportunity for schools to rethink the kind of education they want to provide. Are educators happy to continue to provide traditional, didactic forms of teaching and learning — those best suited to simple modular classrooms off a corridor? This time-honoured method can ensure students pass the gate-keeping exams they need to do well in life.

Or would a more innovative approach, designed to help children think for themselves, lead their own learning, collaborate and problem solve be more appropriate for life in the modern world?

Educational guru Sir Ken Robinson says great schools should help a child develop “physically, socially, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually” throughout their education. Ensuring this is one of the “creative challenges in contemporary education,” he writes.

“The design process must work from the inside out, and evolve by looking at what motivates and empowers learners and teachers,” Danish architect Rosan Bosch writes in the book. She adds: “Although there are many constantly evolving learning methods, no one learns well by being continuously in the same mode – for example, sitting at a desk receiving one-way information. Instead, each learner needs to access a variety of learning environments and situations which engage both the mind and the body. Students’ learning needs differ according to the tasks in question, the time of day and whether it is an individual assignment, group project or a more practical learning activity.”

Her own Rosan Bosch Studio takes inspiration from the futurist David Thornburg whose “primordial metaphors for learning” describe learning in terms of the features of a prehistoric landscape. Here, “caves” provide sheltered spaces for concentrating, “campfire” areas allow discussion and storytelling, and “watering holes” allow for informal learning.

Outdoor areas

Bosch also stresses the importance of outdoor space, especially at pre-school level. She writes: “If the learning environment incorporates the outside space, it allows the students the opportunity to be more creative. They get the freedom to construct, build and adapt their learning space — either in reality or using their imagination.

The interior learning space must be connected to the outdoor areas, so the choice to go outside is always available. The variety of environments will motivate and inspire pre-school students to think differently about maths or learning languages.”

Designers must also consider the design and positioning of specialist spaces for sports, the performing arts and creative subjects. Importantly, if a school is trying to integrate these subjects across the whole curriculum designers must consider the implication for the design and positioning of such spaces.

Libraries also are a bone of contention and many options are available. Do designers choose to keep them as distinct “resource areas” or do they decide they are now redundant, choosing to offer access to their resources at different points across the school?

Finally, it is important to consider technology and how it will be incorporated into the school. Rather than an afterthought, it should be at the forefront of designers’ thinking from the start, writes headteacher Gary Spracklen, who is chair of education technology at the Association for Learning Environments, UK. “It is important that technology is knitted into the fabric of school design — an unremarkable yet essential element,” he writes in the book.

Gone are the days when technology was dependent on large items of furniture and dictated the organisation of a room. He writes: “A learning space needs to be enabled by technology, not driven by it and this static approach is redundant. Technology is now mobile, flexible and cheap.”

“Today’s devices, whether carried in a pocket or worn around a wrist, are infinitely more powerful than the hardware used to send mankind to the moon in the 1960s. Digital technology now permeates everything we do and dominates the world of work. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect school design to adapt to this changing world and make the most of opportunities this technology offers.”

Planning Learning Spaces is published on 21st October 2019 by Laurence King Publishing. Available at all good bookshops and at, RRP £24.99.


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