A good education aims to nurture happy, fully rounded, responsible citizens who will contribute positively to society. As well as teaching pupils valuable knowledge and skills, this education also needs to ready them for the world of work, thereby providing a safe bridge to adulthood. When it comes to designing the buildings that set the scene for this learning, the architect’s job is therefore to cater for both.
Doing so is complicated, however. Pupils learn and mature at different rates and in different ways, particularly post-16s as they go through secondary education and contemplate what happens next. Some are ready to join the workforce straight from school. Others may want to go into higher education. Still others may need more time before they do either. It all depends on an infinite number of variables, including their motivations, natural inclinations, areas of interest, academic ability, emotional maturity, mental resilience, and so on.
This variety among students explains in part the many kinds of secondary school in the UK today. As well as the mainstream maintained schools, there are numerous other options that begin to stratify pupils according to their particular strengths and preferences, including free schools, sixth form colleges and university technical colleges. And of course, catering to student differences gives schools in the independent sector their competitive advantage.
A safe environment
The design of schools is therefore a reflection of not just the schools’ varying educational aspirations and duties to safeguard but also the various needs of the pupils. The question is, can the design do more than simply respond to functional need? Rather than passively facilitate, can it actively improve learning outcomes and ease the difficult transition to the world of work?
To be clear, the passive facilitation is already doing some heavy lifting. After all, learning in a safe, warm, well-lit, airy, acoustically friendly, well-equipped, well laid out, attractive series of spaces has a significant positive impact on student (and staff) wellbeing and performance, and therefore educational outcomes.
Architecture isn’t just consumed passively, though. As we know from our work across multiple sectors, it also has the power to affect emotions and nudge behaviours, which we deploy responsibly for beneficial ends in all that we do. In the case of school and college design, cross-pollination from our extensive experience in workplace sectors is particularly fertile. It actively contributes to improving outcomes and, in introducing features that mimic workplace environments, tangibly prepares pupils for the next phase of their lives. For example, we’ve introduced flexible co-working spaces and a mock boardroom into the new Business and Leadership Hub at Charterhouse School.
The advantages of this creative cross-pollination must be weighed in the balance, especially against the important advantages that standardised design yields for schools delivering the national curriculum. The point is to optimise every opportunity for maximum value. There are always ways to improve, even with the most constrained briefs.
For example, we can lessen anxiety and improve psychological wellbeing in pupils through considered colour palettes, natural materials, connections to the outdoors and nature, and, by avoiding dead-end spaces where pupils can feel trapped, we can reduce the risk of bullying.
One of the key concepts that we know about from our work in offices and universities is to use circulation spaces more fruitfully to encourage users to ‘dwell’, as we put it, in a way that encourages contemplation, chance encounters, and collaboration. Clients in these sectors love these breakout zones because, as well as being attractive and friendly, they promote the kinds of behaviours that lead to fresh ideas and discovery.
We believe that dwell spaces have an important role to play in schools and colleges, too. On a practical level, circulation in schools takes up significant floor area but is only used in a small number of short pulses during the day. When floor area is at such a premium, we feel that this waste is missing a trick. More than that, since collaboration is a grown-up learning behaviour, providing dedicated semi-formal space for it, probably with seating and screens, helps students along the road to adulthood.
At the Deaf Academy, for example, we designed ‘Da Vinci’ nodes between classrooms and open to the corridor as multi-purpose breakout areas for messy activities, one-on-one tutoring, or simply relaxation. Finally, the Beatrice Shilling Building (which is part of Royal Holloway University of London) reminds us that large areas of internal glazing not only activates circulation spaces but provides for improved inclusion and passive supervision.
Deploying these solutions won’t be suitable in every case but, where they are, have the potential to add significant value in readying students for not just industry but every aspect of adult life. This is especially true in the wake of the school closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Young people have been starved of collaborative in-person interaction and providing extra spaces for it in schools could hold the key to their catching up.
Inventiveness on a budget
Making it work in DfE-funded schools is harder but should not be discounted. The allocation in area schedules for circulation, combined with the so-called ‘float’, can be creatively deployed to realise surprising amounts of useful space. Beyond that, as the net-zero carbon agenda drives us to greater use of timber in buildings, we can deliver a double-whammy by leaving the timber exposed for its positive biophilic effect on pupils. This is a prominent trend in workplaces, too, and so doing it in schools is all part of familiarising young people with work environments.
As professionals dedicated to the public good, we want to push for the best possible outcomes with the available resources. Academic excellence must go hand in hand with getting ready for the adult world of work, both of which are mediated through architecture. It is important to get it right.