Schools are central to our communities. It’s not enough to design great learning environments for students. To be truly successful, schools must integrate with, and benefit, the wider area.
Creating new community space is especially important in inner city areas where high value sites are often developed for housing. The demolition of youth clubs or community centres can have a huge impact on an area. Schools can fill this gap by providing space for sports, social clubs and local groups.
However, in this there is a paradox. We want schools to be open, permeable and accessible to everyone living nearby, yet during the working day the safety of students is the priority.
Our challenge as designers is to find ways in which the school can be used flexibly by multiple groups throughout its lifetime.
Our recent project for Leigh Academy Blackheath in London is a prime example of an inner city school operated by an enthusiastic trust keen to provide facilities for nearby residents. The surrounding area is undergoing redevelopment with new housing projects bringing more people into the area and putting strain on local services.
Through careful design, we have created a school which serves the local community and at the same time ensures student safety. Facilities for use by local clubs (including a sports hall, a drama and dance studio and theatre) are arranged close to the edge of the site for easy public access. We avoided a building set in the distance behind ominous fences. Instead landscaping and open green space provide a direct line of site from the street so residents feel welcome.
Having the community facilities arranged in one block means the main teaching block is separately accessed and secure. Students can safely use the entire teaching facility whilst the school generates revenue by letting out community spaces in the late afternoon and into the evening.
Working with trusts to find new and interesting ways for their schools to serve the community remains a key priority for us throughout the design process. As architects, our goal is for our buildings to benefit the areas in which they are built. Schools, when designed with the community in mind, can become genuinely useful facilities that bring people together.
Josh Blackledge is based in our London office and is currently working on Leigh Academy Blackheath and Harris Academy Clapham, both new build ESFA secondary schools.