The master builders

Secondary schools are about to get a £2.2bn revamp, but unless designers allow for the new ways of learning, our children could be going to school in some expensive white elephants
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We are on the brink of the biggest explosion of school building since the Victorian era. Over the next 10 to 15 years, almost every secondary school in England will be rebuilt, or substantially revamped, at a cost of £2.2bn a year. Our leaking and battered secondary schools are to give way to shiny new architectural gems, perfectly suited to education in the 21st century. Or are they?

We are on the brink of the biggest explosion of school building since the Victorian era. Over the next 10 to 15 years, almost every secondary school in England will be rebuilt, or substantially revamped, at a cost of £2.2bn a year. Our leaking and battered secondary schools are to give way to shiny new architectural gems, perfectly suited to education in the 21st century. Or are they?

The opportunity is there, but building and design experts are warning that we could easily throw it away. Unless we think hard about how education is going to look in the future - and what kind of infrastructure that will demand - all we will be left with is a lot of white elephants.

"The big problem is that architects don't get taught anything about learning, and teachers don't get taught anything about architecture," says Professor Stephen Heppell, head of Ultralab, a learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, whose work forms the foundation of a major new report on school building. "The old schools were learning factories. The bell rang and everyone got up and moved around." In contrast, he says, tomorrow's schools will stress creativity and personalised learning, with more mixed-age classes and much less movement around the building. "Think about the new media companies and how they work. It's all about big, open spaces."

But putting up new schools is a bureaucratic process that is unlikely to encourage creative thinking. Local education authorities are not known for their architectural vision and there are always pressures of time and money. The temptation to cut corners on consultation, and to go with tried-and-tested designs rather than with anything new, is always at hand.

"There's lots of activity in the schools field, but what we need is some blue-sky thinking," says Caroline Fraser, an enabling adviser at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe). "We want to encourage people to look into the future, to take nothing for granted."

To do this, Cabe has joined forces with the Royal Institute of British Architects to prompt a "great debate" on the future of school building. In a new report, 21st Century Schools: Learning Environments of the Future, they pin-point the issues that all school builders will need to think about.

Tomorrow's schools, the report says, will have to respond to demands that were never on the agenda in the past: how best to provide and use technology, how to include children with physical and emotional difficulties, how to be able to adapt to an ever-changing curriculum, how to provide community facilities, and how to respond to environmental concerns.

They could do this in different ways, the report suggests, and outlines four provocative visions of the future. Schools might be "open", so that everyone learns via their own computer and children only get together in theatres, museums and sports arenas; fortresses, where hi-tech security cuts the building off from its environment and children disappear inside for a long and varied school day; dispersed, where learning is scattered over different sites within the community; and extended, where the campus is freely used by adult learners and community groups and the school forms the hub of its neighbourhood.

Professor Heppell points out that whatever form a new school takes, one thing is already clear: "Children do much better in a school if they are involved in the debate about their learning environment. In terms of learning outcomes, we now know that in this area good leads to good, but better leads to stunning. If you talk to children, teachers and parents, you always get the benefit."

He adds that some lessons have already been learnt: a head, he says, needs to be appointed before a new school is built so that they can be integral to the building process, and money needs to be kept back for the second year of a school's existence, "so you can deal with the problems that come up - the smells from the chemistry lab or whatever. It's common sense, but you'd be amazed how often it isn't done."

The architect Richard Feilden, who chaired the project team, says: "No doubt many of us have pet versions of the way that we would like to see schools deliver future educational strategies, but the reality seems to be complex and possibly varied, with a range of different approaches, many of which will be specific to their locality."

However, all schools are likely to include more adaptable workspaces, more individualised, computer-based learning and more community involvement. "You've got to go for flexibility in the design," says Fraser. "You've got to go for constructional systems that are carefully thought out. You might, for example, locate four classrooms that can open up into a seminar-type room, or have a drama studio that opens up into a bigger school hall." For architects, this means paying close attention to details such as where to put load-bearing walls, and not positioning immoveable things, like sinks, on walls that might later be moved.

Creative solutions to school building are already being encouraged by the Department for Education and Skills. A Classrooms of the Future initiative prompted new ideas for mobile classrooms, laboratories and learning centres, and the Department has also funded 11 top architectural teams to come up with drawing-board designs for innovative schools.

These designs are intended to help shape the new school-building programme. One of them - by the the award-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre - envisages a secondary school made up of learning "clusters", linked by a covered street. Another, by Building Design Partnership, is a primary school in a "beehive" design, where classrooms interconnect. Then there are the growing number of exciting new schools already being built, such as the environmentally friendly Kingsmead Primary School in Cheshire, and Hampden Gurney Primary School in London, with its multi-level play decks.

"I'm pretty impressed with the work people are doing now," says Nigel Astley, an education consultant working with school design teams, "but designers definitely need people like me to say things like: 'If you do that, you're going to have 900 kids going down that one staircase at change of lesson.' For me, the most important thing is to go back to where the learning takes place. Children have got to be able to work in their classrooms. They need space. You have to think of the ventilation, the acoustics, of how to have anti-glare without having to have the blinds down, and you've got to be able to maximise the space that you've got. It's no good spending thousands on nice wooden architectural curves or whatever, and not paying attention to those basic things."

But to do that, Fraser points out, it is vital to get the right people round the right table at the right time. To help with that, Cabe has just published Being Involved in School Design, a nuts-and-bolts guide to help schools, local authorities, funders, and design and construction teams make the most of the new building bonanza.

Both reports, '21st Century Schools' and 'Being Involved in School Design' are available from or copies can be obtained by e-mailing or calling 020-7 960 4891


Chafford Hundred campus in Thurrock opened three years ago. A nursery, primary and secondary school sit on the site, along with a public library. Community groups, adult learners and commercial organisations use the secondary school, and the glass-walled atrium entrance feels more like a shopping mall, or some new civic building, than a place for learning.

There are other differences, too. Classrooms are light and airy, with screens to stop the sun glaring. The air is fresh, free from the usual secondary-school whiff of old trainers and BO, and carpeting keeps the noise level down.

The school is hi-tech. Ducts run across classroom ceilings carrying computer wiring, along with the PA and smoke alarm systems. Most children use laptops. "Schools can't any longer be stuck away behind gates at the end of a drive. They must provide what their community wants," says Alison Banks, the secondary school's head. The Chafford Hundred campus has been specifically designed to give focus to an emerging community.

Even so, things are not perfect. The school was built on a tight budget of £10.5m. Banks would have liked better-quality doors and windows, more space for community users, and even greater flexibility of classroom use.