What makes a great school?\

Different schools require different approaches but there are some principles that will always be relevant. We have distilled our extensive experience down to 10 key points.

1. Wise Clients
A wise client recognises the bigger picture, is not scared of making difficult, commercial decisions and knows not to throw good money after bad. Our school building stock needs investment – we need to help our school clients to make wise decisions so that they make best use of their sites and provide great school buildings for future generations to learn in.

2. Longevity
For too long, schools have been adapted and expanded with a ‘make do and mend’ attitude. The most sustainable approach should be to design for the long term – we need to be proactive, not reactive. In many of our recent school projects we have found it is the newer buildings on the estate (say 20yrs old) that require replacing rather than the older more historic ones. We are currently enjoying working with LB of Southwark on their primary expansion programme as they have put longevity at the forefront of their brief, obviously balanced within tight budgets and timescales.

3. Establish what is needed
Our approach to all school projects is to ensure we have a clear brief. We need to really understand how an existing school works currently, what’s good and what the areas for improvement are; only then can we make an intervention that really works. Talking to the school community (staff, children and parents etc), and getting their buy in means they are super keen to be involved to make a successful project.

4. Robust, low maintenance architecture
School buildings need to be like solid toys that can stand some tough love. Ongoing regular maintenance is often few and far between in schools. A solution is required that is cost effective, simple to build, easy to use and economic to run.

5. Adaptable, adaptable, adaptable
The ability for a school to adapt allows them to support a variety of teaching methods both now and in the future. Break out space and an ability to adapt larger spaces to accommodate smaller groups is really important. Corridors aren’t simply circulation but are seen as extended learning. ICT is changing faster than anyone can second guess. Who’d have thought 5 years ago that tablets would be a key tool in the modern classroom. We need to ensure the infrastructure can allow this to happen.

6. Get the toilets right
Ask any school pupil what they are concerned with most and we have found a preoccupation with toilets. Getting the apparently small things right has the largest long term impact on a school community. Decent toilets make such a difference. They limit bullying opportunities, provide privacy to maturing children. We know from experience how often children avoid having a drink during the day just so they don’t have to visit the grotty toilets!

7. Kit of Parts - same but different
No single school is the same as the next (and thank goodness for that). Where perhaps this has become particularly apparent to us is where we are working for Southwark across six primary schools in parallel. We have worked hard with each headteacher and school community to ensure our designs reflect the strengths, uniqueness and priorities of each school. However, what is also obvious is that fundamentally each school consists of the same elements - classrooms, smaller rooms, specialist rooms, administration space, a hall/dining space, staff areas etc. By using standard components - internal doors, sanitary fittings, windows etc – in different colours and finishes we are making the future maintenance of these schools as straightforward and economic as possible.

8. Inside Outside
Spend as much time designing the areas around the building as designing the building itself. The outside is as important as the inside. The schoolyard is the laboratory of education; and perhaps more importantly, the defining place where we learn how to interact and socialise with others.

9. Value for money
Good cost advice is essential. We are operating in a climate where financial constraints are influencing all projects not just schools, but it is illogical to build buildings out of cheap, short life materials just to meet a capital cost constraint. Our job is to ensure budgets are being spent wisely, and providing what is best for the estate and for the long term.

10. Remember… schools are for children
Finally (and most importantly) schools are for children. Creating a school community means providing a space where children are comfortable, have a sense of ownership and most importantly feel that they belong.”

Written by Carol Lees and published in the Architects Journal

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