The design revolution

When children are asked how they would improve the quality of their environment they look at their schools with fresh eyes. And, as Hilary Wilce discovers, there are educational benefits, too
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The Independent Online

Like children all over the country, the pupils of Deptford Park primary school, London, were fed up with their grotty school loos. But unlike other children, they were able to call on one of the country's top architects to redesign them.

Like children all over the country, the pupils of Deptford Park primary school, London, were fed up with their grotty school loos. But unlike other children, they were able to call on one of the country's top architects to redesign them.

Mike Davies, a director of the Richard Rogers Partnership - that of the Pompidou Centre, the Millennium Dome and Heathrow's Terminal Five - did what he was instructed, and came up with a Caribbean beach theme, along with automatic flushes and taps, and a plasma screen on the wall for information and entertainment. Now the school is looking to raise the £40,000 it needs to build the toilets, but head Sue Alton says the children have already reaped benefits from working with him.

"It really raised their aspirations. They were the ones in charge. They felt they were listened to, that they were treated like grown-ups and their ideas were important. And it also made them think about all kinds of things - maths, careers, design."

Meanwhile pupils at Monkseaton High School, in Whitley Bay, just outside Newcastle, discovered that working with a top architect not only raised aspirations, but also exam results. Sixth-formers at the school told London-based architect Keith Priest they wanted more light and air in their cramped classrooms. He worked with them to come up with a design for rounded steel "pods" that could be clamped onto the side of the existing, bleak 1960s building. Although this was only a design exercise, and the pods were not built, the school became so excited about the potential of good design that it found £4,000 to transform its design and art centre. Since then the proportion of pupils getting A* to C grades in GCSE graphics has shot up from 38 per cent to 86 per cent, in the GCSE in resistant materials from 27 per cent to 64 per cent, and A level uptake for project design has more than doubled.

"The centre is now the most popular place in the school. It's where the students most like to be," says head Paul Kelly, who says the exercise has made everyone acutely aware of the importance of a well-designed learning environment.

Both schools are part of an ambitious national scheme to bring Britain's multi-million dollar creative industries together with school children. Called joinedupdesignforschools, it is exploring how good design can improve the quality of life in education, as well as using the process of design as an educational tool to inspire pupils, encourage them to aim high, and teach them life skills. And it is using the cream of the design world. Paul Smith has redesigned the uniform in one school, while Future Systems, whose Birmingham Selfridges has just opened, have helped another school revamp its quad.

Design duo John and Frances Sorrell are behind the project. They developed the idea after years of working with the education system, producing among other things a series of national curriculum guides. Dubbed by one writer "the It couple of the design world", they sold their flourishing design company at the end of the 1990s.

"We became extremely interested in the way young people learn at school," says former Design Council chairman John Sorrell. "We could see that they knew so much about what the problems were, but because they were kids no-one was listening to them. So we thought: Why not make kids the clients, and ask them about how they would improve the quality of their environment?" The Sorrells wanted children to have the experience of thinking about their school environment, articulating their needs, instructing professionals, and following projects through to completion. They also wanted to open their eyes to what good design is all about, and to preserve and foster their creativity.

So far the project has worked with 31 schools, and aims to make that 100 by 2005. The DfES is backing it with £2m, Channel 4 has made a series of documentaries about it, and one of its long-term aims is to create a general model for how schools can work with designers.

A few projects have misfired or fallen through, "just like in real life," says John Sorrell, "but many have been extremely good and deserve to be implemented." They include designs for arts centres, sixth form spaces, lockers, foyers, magazines and even a video game. How schools will find the funding to put them in place is still being looked at, although some projects are going ahead. At Hythe Community School, Kent, children have worked with designer Ben Kelly to shape how the reception area in the school's new extension will look. "We allocated three curriculum days for it," says head Carolyn Chivers. "The whole school was involved. They had to collect data, interview staff, and make models. When they started, they had very little idea what a reception area was for, and they didn't even know we had an internal telephone system. They had to find all that out. Then they had to develop their ideas. At one point they were thinking about a seaside theme, but that didn't last. And they looked at a Barbie pink floor, but the boys objected like mad, so they had to compromise with a pinky-purply colour! The designer was great, and it was exactly the kind of curricular experience which is ideal for young children." The extension is due to open early next year.

Meanwhile clear themes are emerging about what pupils want. "Toilets are a very big issue in secondary schools," says John Sorrell. "Then they want good storage. They want sheltered spaces outside so they don't have to stand out in the cold, and they want their own spaces inside where they can relax.

"But it's not really about design. It uses design as a way to have a conversation with children, and to help them discover their own powers. These projects go on for a long time, from before Christmas to Easter, and the children have to learn team work, communication and presentation skills, financial skills and time management. But you see their confidence grow when they are put in control. Teachers tell us they have never seen their kids thinking or working like that, so committed and full of ideas and thinking intelligently about issues."

Busy architects and designers, on the other hand, have not always been quite so keen, even though the project pays for their time. Architect Keith Priest, whose company Fletcher Priest recently built Vodafone's new world headquarters at Newbury, admits he needed his arm twisting to get involved with Monkseaton High, but is delighted he did. "We were expecting wild, madcap ideas. But what we got was the most succinct and intelligent briefing we've ever had. And it was great to see the transformation of the girls involved. At one point they had to give a briefing to the Treasury, and there they were, in London, completely media-savvy, standing up and talking to 200 or 300 people."

Designer Craig Riley, of Casson Mann, got an unexpected buzz out of working with a challenging group of teenage girls from Ramsgate School, Kent. As part of helping them turn their special area in school into "a kind of Austin Powers room, where they could throw themselves about a bit" he took them on a tour of London, visiting the Geffrye Museum and a fashionably minimalist bar in Shoreditch. "These were tough kids from what was supposed to be something like the second-worst school in Britain, but it was great seeing their confidence grow as they felt more comfortable about talking how they felt about different spaces. I found them delightful to be with. I genuinely had fun with them. At the end of the day, when they went off to get their train, I felt quite lost without them."


Sir Hugh Myddelton was an innovative 17th-century engineer who brought fresh water from Hertfordshire to London. But to the pupils at Hugh Myddelton Primary School in Clerkenwell he was just "a weird-looking man in a skirt" embroidered on their sweatshirts.

Now they have a new logo, a bold and eye-catching "H". They have new school notepaper, new classroom signs, new labels on their water bottles, and a prototype new welcome pack for new parents.

The designers Marksteen Adamson worked with a group of Year Five pupils, now aged 10, to "rebrand" the school. They took photos of the site, made a video, dug into the history of fresh water coming to London, and came up with a series of water creatures - ducks, dragonflies, frogs - to represent year groups.

The responsibility sat heavily on their shoulders. "If we'd done it wrong," says Lucy Warrell, "they'd all have been going round with great big faces on their jumpers or something". They had to learn how to conduct meetings, and move the project along. "We had to focus on one thing. If we'd focused on loads of things we'd never have got anything done," says Suraya Terro.

They all agreed it made them look at their school with new eyes, "seeing" a flaking, dingy stairwell as if for the first time. "What we learnt was that everything could be improved," says Harry Edwards.

Adamson says that he wanted to give them a stronger sense of identity - something they could be proud of. "I also tried to show them that you shouldn't throw away your past, so even if we weren't celebrating Myddelton as a character, we were celebrating what he did."

Hannah Johns, the school's design group leader, says the children learnt to compromise