Architecture: A stylish lesson - under our noses: An East End school provides proof that the best architecture isn't always in faraway places. Jonathan Glancey takes a look

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A month ago photographs of the new Albert Camus school at Frejus, in the south of France, graced this page. The school, designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners, is a simple, elegant and dramatic building, cheap to build and promising to be cheap to run. It sets new standards for the design of secondary schools, and it seemed a shame when writing about it that the British education system was unable to offer anything as fine.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, however, took exception to the article. This was not because the design of the school at Frejus was in question, but because the borough felt that the Independent had overlooked a brand new school almost under its nose in London's East End. Swanlea School has many of the characteristics of its French cousin, cost much the same (pounds 9m) and is built in a much more demanding location. It is also the first new secondary school built in the capital in 10 years, so it merits a look, at least.

The school is 20 minutes' walk from the Independent. The walk is not quite as glamorous as that from Frejus (the Mediterranean sparkling in the middle distance) down to the Albert Camus school. It takes you instead through the all- but-abandoned Spitalfields market, through Spitalfields itself - the back streets of Calcutta without the sun or bright colours - along alleys topped with barbed wire, through impoverished council estates, thunderous traffic arteries, ad hoc car parks, abandoned Victorian buildings and, finally, one of Whitechapel's great sights: a massive rubbish dump, piled 15ft high with the detritus of the capital.

One approaches Swanlea School with caution. With all the calls on its stretched resources - this is one of the poorest boroughs in Britain - has Tower Hamlets really managed to match Frejus?

To be brutal, this is not world class architecture - it lacks the harmony, pedigree and poise of Foster's work - yet it is proof that with determination, local authorities in Britain can provide a high standard of public sector design in an age when new public architecture is both rare and underfunded.

Swanlea is a hop, skip and jump in the right direction. It has been commissioned with care and insight into the needs of the mixed population it serves. Tower Hamlets has one of the fastest growing school populations in Britain. Its Bengali residents have large families and the borough's schools have been unable to cope with the vast increase in the number of children.

The school is a big building - it has to be - designed for up to 1,050 uniformed pupils aged from 11 to 16, and to reflect the demands of the national curriculum. The yellow brick classrooms, library, sports hall, gym, language laboratories and staff rooms lead off a central 'street' or 'mall', as with Foster's school in France. This idea was developed in Britain in the Seventies by the Hampshire county architect's department under the direction of Sir Colin Stansfield-Smith.

Sir Colin gained the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture for the remarkable public sector buildings he and his small team have built in Hampshire over the past 20 years, among them inventive schools acclaimed by staff, parents and pupils as well as by critics and award committees. The architects of Swanlea School - Percy Thomas Partnership - worked on the design with Sir Colin's team, and the Hampshire influence is evident.

The dramatic three-storey mall is both a link between the various parts of the building and a social focus. It acts as a rainy-day playground and offers glimpses into classrooms and laboratories. Walking along its raised gangways is like promenading the decks of a great liner.

At the moment the architecture and engineering (by Y R M Anthony Hunt) dominates, but very soon plants and children's designs will soften the blow of this vast interior. The great glazed roof brings daylight into the core of the building. In summer, prismatic glass strips will reflect the sun, keeping the mall cool, while in winter they will encourage soft sunlight into the internal street below. The building will use considerably less energy than the prefabricated state secondary schools of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

The school has been designed and organised to help to pay its own way. Parts of the building can be closed when the children have gone home. The language laboratories, financed by City Challenge, are being used for adult education classes. Bengali parents come to learn English, while their children use the same facilities to learn French and other languages.

It is up to the headmistress, Linda Austin, how she runs her pounds 2m-a-year educational enterprise, but there seems little doubt that adult education will play a large part in the life and finances of the school. Bruce Glockling, who has run the project Tower Hamlets council, explains: 'The school has been designed as a focus for the community and this is why the architecture matters so much. We want local people to feel proud of the school and involved in its activities'.

Crammed into its city site, the school also offers children outdoor 'classrooms', an arena for plays and for sitting around at lunchtime and some experience of nature (there are few trees and even fewer flowers in the surrounding streets). Even before the building was completed, just before the beginning of the autumn term, dragonflies and water beetles had magically found their way to the pond at the heart of the 'ecological' garden in the school grounds. Frogspawn and sticklebacks are sure to find a home here soon.

Swanlea School offers real hope. One can pick holes in its architecture, but not many in its concept and none in the integrity of its planning and purpose. The Albert Camus school is more elegant, but Swanlea shows that the lessons of Britain's best architects and educational administrators can be applied in the poorest city borough.

(Photographs omitted)