Monday 16th – Thursday 19th April 2012

I spent these four days with head teachers, architects and senior leaders from a range of newly built schools in and around London, UK. This proved to be an invaluable experience. What follows are some notes and reflections on the study tour.

John JenkinsHaverstock Associates

After meeting Rhys Rappel an architect from Vicoria, Australia in Hong Kong he suggested I talk with John Jenkins of Haverstock and Associates. John is a founding member of his practice and “in addition to this he chairs the Home Office Design Review Panel. He is responsible for reviewing Design Quality on all Home Office projects. John is a former chair of the CABE School Design Panel and is a trustee at BCSE. John was a key consultee on the Sebastian James Review. He has acted as a CABE enabler helping Local Education and Police Authorities to improve design quality, a Home Office enabler and an RIBA Client Design Advisor.”

It was great that John freely gave of his time on Monday 16th April and showed genuine interest in the Island School redevelopment project. After giving a brief overview of the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) and how this was followed by the ambitious BSF (Building Schools of the Future) initiative in the UK, he really began to focus in on the isues and share his understanding.

Under the PFI scheme educators had very little say in what final buildings were like (some would argue that they had very little expertise or experience in working alongside architects). Ultimately Heads and LEAs were tied into contracts that upheld the interests of private shareholders rather than the educational community they served on a day to day basis. Buildings were not flexible or adaptable because alterations were restricted and or hugely expensive under the scheme.

John was very much at the centre of the BSF initiative which took a fresh look at what schools in the 21st century should be like. He very much argued for architects working alongside educators to build expertise and explore new possibilities. The BSF process led to architects becoming more attuned to the needs of educators and educators becoming more aware of issues to do with school design.

He described recent trips to Hellerup School in Denmark; a trip that he attended alongside staff from a client school (this turned out to be Stanley Park High School where I ended up visiting two days later). He was a strong advocate of staff training in order to not only ensure that designs reflected real pedagogical needs, but also to develop ways of using the final building with purpose effectively. Staff need to work together to develop effective ways of using the school once it is completed as well as being involved in the design ‘journey’.

John talked about the complexities of ensuring that school designs match school mission and vision for teaching and learning. He emphasized the need for schools to take hold of the process and lead it. Recounting his experiences at Stanley Park High he explained how the school requested an evidence based solution that had been trialled elsewhere, that this design should be adaptable so that if it did not work then it could be modified to support a previous or different curriculum model. They specifically asked for a school where four smaller schools were explicitly demarcated within the wider campus.

Happily in meeting with John I was able to make the connection with Stanley Park High School and spend a morning there (see below) on Wednesday 18th April. Through this meeting I began to realise just what an opportunity we have to build a school which really reflects all we want in our curriculum development thinking. Ironically though, we need to be careful not to restrict the possible need for modifications in the future. An outcome that too specifically mirrors what we want now may date too quickly. We need to strive for a design that has in built adaptability to assure some degree of future proofing. One thing we can be sure is that there is going to be immense change over the new school’s life cycle.

See a video of John Jenkins speaking about the relation ship between pedagogy and school buildings here.

We also discussed Michael Gove’s recent views on ‘designer’ architects and his implied criticism of the BSF programme (see Guardian article here).

Walworth Academy

After the session at Haverstock I made my way over the the Walworth Academy to meet with Andrew Ferguson the Director of Finance and resources. Walworth is an Ark School and was the first one to move into its purpose built campus in 2010. In order to provide a more personalized experience for students the academy is split into four smaller schools (Babbage, Chaplin, Seacole and the sixth from). Two are KS3 schools, one a KS4 school and a new sixth from. The rationale is similar to that of other schools that have adopted a ‘smaller schools within a school’ model – that is to support the development of high quality and strong personal relationships and to ensure that staff know their students and can respond to any academic and pastoral need swiftly and with full  understanding.

Ark schools are very informed in their approach by the work and vision of Jay Altman who heads up the FirstLine Schools and Charter Schools initiative in post ‘Katrina’ New Orleans.

The first thing that struck me on arrival was the impressive frontage and the fact that when I entered the reception area I was invited to log in my details on to a visitor’s touch screen.

It was clear that the 4 sub-schools idea had informed the design process from the outset. Each school was marked by floors of the building rather than separate blocks. Breaks and lunches are staggered so that whilst providing a more intimate and familial experience for students there were limited opportunities for mixing of students between ‘schools’. The huge under-croft was deliberately left fallow as a way of providing flexibility for expansion in the future.

The design is such that it allows for ‘passive surveillance’. This concept applies to sight-lines along corridors and across the campus as well as each classroom having a floor to ceiling glass panel along the back between the classroom space itself and the adjoining corridor.

Each of the separate schools has a common space which can be used for various ‘breakout’ activities, larger group events or assemblies.  The common spaces are double-height and two common spaces can be joined together to create a larger space if required.

Stair wells are external and encased in glass which both gives maximum light and full visibility during student movement. Another interesting innovation at Walworth was the biometric cashless payment system. Students pay for their lunch and snacks with their finger! parents top up their account online and can monitor their childrens’ food and beverage purchases.

Architecture today – Walworth Academy

St Pauls Way Trust School

Nick John a Deputy Headteacher at St Pauls Way School took the time to show me around on Tuesday 17th April and as with all my other hosts he did a fabulous job. The campus was very impressive indeed. It is organized in a linear layout of four ‘houses’ each of which is in a cluster formation, each with a covered three story atrium housing either the LRC, flexible common learning areas or  a refectory. Each of these atria are naturally lit from above and diffuse daylight permeates all the common areas. Circulation is by means of wide gallery corridors which overlook the internal quadrants and give great sight lines across and around the internal spaces. At times these ‘corridors’ (which are never closed in, but always interconnect with other functional side spaces) are wide enough to constitute open learning areas. Whilst their use has yet to become systematic and intentional these are all serviced by mains electricity and teaching focal points and are ready to become key learning areas. The other remarkable feature of SPWSS is the open class rooms that surround each of the atria. I immediately remembered what Stephen Heppell had said on his visit to Island School last year – “make sure none of your classrooms have more than three walls”. For a quick idea of how these three walled classrooms work look at the shot above (courtesy of Architecture Today). These classrooms have two sliding walls that can be easily pulled back so that the classroom blends in with the external circulation space. This not only provides more space, but enables the teacher to easily supervise and support students working in breakout areas beyond the classroom itself and provides easier access to all the space in the more traditional rectangular classroom. Nick confided that teachers reactions to this level of openness was mixed. It seemed to me that the design solution was ideal. When it was appropriate (for whatever reason) the doors / walls could easily be opened providing more space, light and. more importantly, connectedness. When this was not desirable for what ever reason – the doors/walls could be closed.

Another unusual feature of the school was that the staff room is encased on three sides by walls made completely of glass. This therefore meant that staff were totally visible from student common areas and circulation routes when they were having their daily cuppa.

The startling cantilevered porch (see photos on links below) was an effective way of configuring the tiered seating in the excellent performance space. This was a very effective way of saving on the building’s footprint. At the same point you are made very aware of how close the school building is to the public right of way. The traditional notion of perimeter fence and distant school building just does not figure. The public can and do walk right past the main entrance and can see in to the school. This was a deliberate attempt to blend inside and outside and to make the schools commitment to community involvement concrete. Along the frontage of the school there is an interconnected series of spaces that can be secured from the rest of the school and so be used for conferences or other community events outside of school hours. Alternatively they provide extra flexible space for learning when the school itself is in session. I suspect that this space will also be used to host parent meetings and student exhibitions.

Architect’s site / Architecture today article

Lambeth Academy

Lambeth Academy attempts to make the best of use of a very small site. Thanks go to Ennelyn Schmidt-Roberts who really made my visit worthwhile. She not only sang the praises of the newly designed school, but was also candid about what she felt had been the challenges of the design process. The school had spent some time and effort since completion adjusting features and improving elements that they felt had not best served the schools purpose. I was surprised to find out that Ennelyn had worked with Yamin Ma, Island School’s head of Chinese during an SSAT conference at the school a few years ago.

On approaching the building I was immediately struck by the frontage. Clad in natural stone, the walls fan in a way that represents the pages of an open book (see above). This arrangement is not only aesthetic, but also helps to mange incoming light and to provide some privacy to the internal space. This outside facade encloses the internal atrium which is structured around a curve based on the Fibonacci series.

The design maximises site use with 3 storeys of teaching accommodation .The sports hall was moved to the first floor to create additional external play area, with a covered play area beneath the sports hall.

I was very impressed by the way the school leadership team have evaluated the school design and subsequently planned major reconfigurations and re-purposing of sections of the campus. Lessons to learn are to do with unintentional consequences of certain design features. During my visit to Lambeth Academy I was made acutely aware of just how important it is to focus on end user needs at every turn.

Architects / Case Study

Stanley Park High Community School

I would like to thank David Taylor the Head of SPHS who agreed to spend the morning with me at very short notice. He was very welcoming and took great effort to discuss the design and build process. The community had only just moved into their new campus in January 2012 and so there was still a palpable sense of excitement in the air. What struck me most about the school was that it was an absolute bespoke design that clearly showed that the school had articulated a clear vision for what it needed from the outset and that the architects had really listened. This was not an ‘off the shelf’ design that fitted an architect’s dream it was a ‘made to measure’ outcome that fitted perfectly!

When David took the school over it was not doing very well by any measure. Exam results were poor, students had disinvested and were not behaving positively and parents tried to avoid sending their children to the school.  At first the schools new leadership implemented a zero tolerance approach to behaviour management and to impose a real sense of ‘top down’ discipline. Whilst undertaking study tours to research new thinking in school design in the USA, the thinking changed. The Headteacher takes up the story (from the school’s website)…

“In 2006 Stanley Park High was given the One School Pathfinder for the London Borough of Sutton. This surprising news gave us the opportunity to design a new school for the future. The only condition was that we needed to be innovative. Doing the same was not an option.
In the Autumn Term of 2006 we researched and travelled to find examples of innovative practice. In the first instance this involved us looking at schools in this country. Through this we became aware of a school called Bishop’s Park in Clacton, a school under the leadership of Mike Davies. He led a school that had divided into three smaller communities: Lighthouses, Towers and Windmills. After visiting this school we became aware of Human Scale Education and their values and principles. Whilst not wishing to adopt all of them, we liked what we saw and wanted to find out more.”

SPHS comprises 4 distinct schools. Students in year 7 and 8 do not move out of these schools at all. The curriculum in year 7 comprises 15 lessons of Maths, Science, English and PE and 12 lessons of a homegrown trans-disciplinary course known as the ‘Excellent Furutures Curriculum (EFC). This course has very close parallels with island Schools newly adopted Island Time course in year 7. There is much more information about the curriculum form and structure on the school website here – but the key points in relations to the schools physical design are these.

  • The school has very carefully demarked for separate schools that mirror a curricular specialism;
  • Maths, Science and English lessons occur in all four schools so that they do not have a focal subject ‘home’.
  • Each school has a ‘superstudio’ that accommodates 90-100 students. These spaces have three focal teaching points, are flexible and open out onto the huge multi-storey central atrium for break-out and ‘informal’ learning.

It is also worth noting that tutor group comprise only 15 students and are grouped vertically in years 9-13. Another unusual design feature is that there is no staff room at all. My visit to Stanley Park High School really made me think that we should closely align our design thinking with our aims for curriculum development as we move forward.

Architects / Human Scale Education

Michael Faraday School

Part of the regeneration of Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, South London, the newly developed Michael Faraday primary school is a flagship design that really pushes the boundary of what we consider a school should be like. It is very unusual in design. Karen Fowler (Headteacher) and Paul Armstrong (Deputy Head) both welcomed me and took me through the schools unique journey to their new school. Karen was very ‘hands on’ at every stage of the process and very much determined the way forward. She was reluctant to use ‘county’ architects and was very clear about the fact that she felt the local community needed a significant investment, that the new school should be world class and unique. She worked tirelessly alongside the architects (often visiting them in their studio). She insisted in RIBA being involved and was always quick to resist design proposals that did not fit the schools vision.

The main design features of the school are …

  • The school building is circular and this determines the unusual shape of classrooms;
  • Each classroom has internal and external access. The external access allows learning to spill outside during fine weather and allows for diffused circulation of users;
  • Each classroom has a dedicated break out space just outside and in the central atrium. This has a wet area, storage and work areas.
  • The atrium has different furniture to support different modes of learning. Many atria I saw either had specific purposes or were left ‘fallow’. What worked at MFS was the range of different furniture and focal points to support both formal and informal teaching methods.
  • The school has a very big central atrium based around the idea of a ‘living room’. This was the organising concept from the outset.  In this space there is a big brightly coloured ‘studio’ room for dance, music and other performances.
  • Younger year classrooms are organised on the ground floor. First floor rooms accommodate the older students. A continuous balcony corridor runs around the whole circle of the atrium and looks over into it. Similarly an external corridor runs around the building circumference. This allows for ‘break out’ learning and alternative access to classrooms.
  • On top of the studio is the roof garden. An unusual green carpeted space that can be used for assemblies and ‘key’ lessons. This open space is slightly inclined to provide an auditorium feel;
  • The design is modular to allow for spaces to be easily convertible. Two adjacent classrooms can be changed into three smaller ones if the school decides to change class sizes. This was very much part of the design brief from the outset;
  • The new Multi-Use Games Area will be shared with the local community and bore holes beneath the pitch form the Ground Source Heat Pump that contributes to the building achieving a predicted 20% carbon reduction and BREEAM ‘very good’ rating.

The main lessons to be learned from MFS are that school leaders need to be dogged and prepared to really get involved if they are to realise their vision for new school buildings. They need to be prepared to say no. I also noticed that there are issues to do with durability and wear and tear. Even though it is early days for Michael Faraday the question is being asked – how does such a startling and new design like this weather over time? Is it too high tech to grow in character as it gets older? Do high tech and shiny new designs necessarily lend itself to the sometimes messy process of learning? In the book born from Stanford’s D-School and IDEO “Making Space” – there are many ideas that promote a more low tech and adaptable approach. I felt that at many of the schools I visited were just to uniformly corporate, glossy and sometimes anodyne and clinical. Paul explained how staff felt very reluctant to stick students work up on the walls in their new atrium because the whole space seemed so precious that using sellotape on it seemed wrong. Now they have relented on this and the design stands up to impromptu displays of work in progress etc.

Westminster Academy


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