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Schools Educating Schools

We invited an education historian, an architect and an education policy advisor to debate what makes a great school.

We hosted a ‘Schools Educating Schools’ debate, where guest speakers Dr. Catherine Burke, Dr. Sharon Wright and our own Alex Abbey were asked to summarise which principles of school design they consider to be most important. The session concluded with an open discussion and live tabling of notes, to see if the group could agree on which five principles are the most essential in designing a successful school.

The talk took place on the day of the government’s Autumn statement, which failed to deliver significant investment in state schools - underscoring the need for professionals involved in the construction of schools to define what we collectively know from experience about good school design.

The Education Historian’s Perspective

‘School as home’

Dr Catherine Burke reminded us of the rich history of European school design, from the 1960s domestic-scale structuralist designs by Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger and the Medds’ British single storey learning landscape schools to the recently completed University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield - which embodies some of these ideals. 

Dr Burke’s window into the history of school design was, foremost, a reminder of the joy to be found in the design of a well-considered and nurturing school environment. Amongst her chosen key principles of good school design were: ‘Design for democratic living – the ability to reach, touch and manoeuvre in the space’ as well as ‘Space for living things and incompleteness.’

Following on from a quote by David Medd – ‘Education is specific and demands variety’ – Dr Burke reminded us that learning spaces should be designed in response to the specific needs of the educational methodology of each school.  Architecture and teaching methods must work together harmoniously for a school building to be truly successful.

Dr Burke's case-in-point example: The Apollo Schools, Amsterdam (1981 - 1983) - two schools designed by Herman Hertzberger based on an identical scheme. The Montessori School's teaching method works with the architecture, while the Willemspark state-funded school does not use the space as originally intended by the architect. Photographs by Dr Catherine Burke.

The Education Policy Advisor’s Advice

‘It’s all about the brief’

Dr Sharon Wright made the case for rigorous consultation with staff, parents and pupils, so that a meaningful brief can be developed to inform the school’s design. ‘Don’t forget staff needs’ was another salient principle offered by Dr Wright – citing challenges currently faced in retaining inner city teaching staff in the context of the housing crisis.

Dr Sharon Wright's case study example of a small intervention making a big difference with new staff room spaces provided at Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark, designed by Contents Design. Photograph by Kristen McCluskie.

The Architect’s Ideas

‘Connections, playfulness and adaptability’

Our Alex Abbey looked back through the evolution of Cullinan Studio’s approach to school design and lessons learnt over the past 15 years. Projects included our more recent work at Holy Cross Primary School in Swindon and Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth, where we collaborated with schools to find creative solutions to learning spaces in parallel with their teaching methodologies, such as ‘furniture-free’ classrooms at Rosendale and ‘learning streets’ at Holy Cross.

Reading nook at Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth by Cullinan Studio. We worked closely with the headteacher to design an alternative classroom solution without conventional desk spaces - working together with the school's teaching methods and within a limited budget. Photography by Paul Raftery.

Axonometric section through one of four refurbished classrooms at Rosendale Primary.

The 'learning street' at Holy Cross Primary School by Cullinan Studio. Photography by Paul Raftery.

Exploded section through the 'learning street' and four classrooms at Holy Cross Primary School in Swindon.

The Debate

A lively and constructive Q&A debate ensued amongst our audience of teachers, educationists, academics and architects which will be condensed into a short guide on the ‘principles of good school design’ by Cullinan Studio and distributed to those who attended. Interestingly, there was a strong consensus - across disciplines - on what makes a great school, as well as on shortcomings in today's school space standards.

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove recently admitted that it was a mistake to scrap New Labour’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010. Since then, government-led school procurement has provided piece-meal alternatives such as free schools and grammar schools, neither of which stacks up to the scale of the demand. The gap left behind by BSF is yet to be replaced with a bold, cohesive strategy that will provide the quality of school facilities that future generations of state school children deserve.

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has warned of a ‘wider malaise’ in our society - linking the Brexit ‘protest vote’ to a lack of government investment in schools. It has never been more important for good design to reach more schools - and by extension - their disenfranchised communities who have been neglected for too long.

What Next for School Design?

Each of our speakers reminded the audience that, despite the challenges faced, some innovative school buildings are still being built - and problem-solving initiatives and debates on best practice for school design continue to be led by the architectural community. 

It is encouraging that we have kept the debate on school design alive within our own profession. However, if we are to meet the scale of the need, we must find ways to step outside of our echo chambers - to share platforms with educationists and our over-stretched teacher friends. 

Architects could play a crucial role in articulating this shared knowledge and experience - so that the voices of teachers, children, educationists and school builders are heard by those making strategic decisions about investment in schools at a national level.


The three speakers:

Dr Catherine Burke

Dr Catherine Burke, University of Cambridge
Catherine is an historian currently engaged with cultural and material histories of educational contexts and of childhood in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. She has researched and published on the history of school architecture, the participation of children in the design of schools, as well as on contemporary school architecture, and her book 'A Life in Education and Architecture' won the History of Education Society UK Book prize in 2014.  She is President of the History of Education Society (UK) and Reader in History of Education and Childhood at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches undergraduate history of education and childhood and supervises a group of graduate students carrying out exciting and innovative doctoral research on issues concerning the design of schools and education more widely.

Dr Sharon Wright

Dr Sharon Wright, Senior Associate, the-learning-crowd
Sharon has over 20 years experience in leading strategy and policy development, implementation and evaluation in education and urban regeneration. She started her career in education and employment policy in central government and for the past 14 years has been advising on school capital projects. Sharon works with public and private sector organisations to engage school communities and create environments that meet their aspirations and needs. Sharon is co-editor of 'Future Schools - Innovative Design for Existing and New Buildings', published by RIBA.

Alex Abbey

Alex Abbey, Cullinan Studio
Alex has designed and constructed a broad range of education buildings with the practice. He was Project Architect for the exemplar Millennium Primary School and Health Centre on the Greenwich Peninsula, Shenley Academy in Birmingham and Holy Cross Primary School in Swindon, completed in September 2015. Holy Cross was the first opportunity to test a prototype, timber flat-pack school designed by Cullinan Studio to meet the Government's challenge to reduce costs and increase speed of construction, whilst keeping space standards to Building Bulletin 99.

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