Designs for learning: An innovative Rutland school shows that low-cost needn't mean second-rate

Cuts to building budgets mean there'll be no more show-stoppers like the newly unveiled City of Westminster College.

Two newly completed colleges form perfect bookends for the seismic shift in school design policy wrestled into existence by Michael Gove. One of them marks the end of the Learning and Skills Council's grand dream of a production line of wow-factor further education buildings. The other signals the beginning of education environments that have more to do with Ikea flatpack-thinking than expressive architecture. And yet the two buildings share key similarities.

The very different political generators of London's City of Westminster College, and Catmose College in Oakham, Rutland, have ultimately produced loose-fit containers whose spaces are designed to be as socially and educationally flexible as possible. Jonathan Ellis-Miller, designer of Catmose, borrows the language of the great modernist architect, Le Corbusier, to describe that building as a "machine for learning in, but also a machine that learns". By that, he means a school or college whose layout and spaces can be straightfowardly redefined through use.

By comparison to the relatively cheap, £1,800 per square metre Catmose, the City of Westminster College is a Rolls-Royce project. Designed by the eminent international Danish practice, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), it is one of the most architecturally striking new colleges or academies in Britain. The college's deputy principal, David Pigden, describes its educational offer as "everything from basic numeracy to degree courses in science. It's a very, very wide spread, and our students speak 50 different first languages. We've got a finger in virtually every Ofsted pie."

The architects have taken the concept of social learning and staged it in an extrovert way with the kind of architecture that won't be affordable again in the education sector for many years. The £70m building is 24,000m2 which translates into about £2,900 per square metre, but the coffers that would have funded many others like it are empty. City of Westminster College is the last offspring of New Labour's Learning and Skills Council, which was axed in 2009 after seven years and an £11.6bn budget which went into meltdown after management problems.

The college's bold seven-storey form juts over Paddington Green in a way that defies immediate categorisation. The mini-plaza in front of it, the veering 8.5m high columns in the reception area, the wide cascade of stairs from the first level, the Brazilian slate flooring, and the way the massive floorplates cantilever increasingly outwards as the main façade rises, suggest anything but a school. It could just as easily be a hotel or corporate headquarters.

The decision to create an airy, open core to the building has, according to Pigden, moderated behaviour, which had become an issue in the college's previous motley collection of buildings on the site: "We want passers-by to be able to see into the building to see what we're doing, to get the idea of one community – and no place to hide," And inside, if you were to replace the population of students with relaxed adults bearing luggage, the hotel image gains ground. A central atrium, topped with an ETFE canopy – think high performance bubble-wrap – rises at a dramatic angle through an asymmetric arrangement of balconies, and one waits instinctively for the sound of a cocktail bar pianist or piped muzak; instead, from one of the balcony break-out spaces above, comes the voice of a student involved in an amplified R&B project rehearsal.

Despite the college's crisp geometry and high-quality finishes, there is an immediate loose-fit feel to it. The first thing that becomes apparent is the sheer amount of open space, natural light and long sight-lines in the 100m-long building – not just across one floor, but across two or three different levels. From the double-height library segment, it's possible to see students on the ground floor and two levels up. "There aren't any obvious segregations," says Pigden. "The students have responded brilliantly, and there's been a reduction in incidents."

But he's keenly aware that some aspects of its configuration are radical and untested: "We're trying to give the students the possibility of learning in new ways, to learn in ways that suit them best. We wanted this to be a showcase college – SHL's design was the wild card – and it's given a real sense of change. The design sailed through planning. The council said the college could be a catalyst for regeneration."

It will certainly be a testbed for educational space-use. SHL's London director, Morten Schmidt, said: "We brought a very dynamic building shape into play so that the visual connectivity was vertical as well as horizontal, with different levels overlapping and creating a mixture of single and double-height spaces."

There are, broadly speaking, four kinds of learning space here: open social learning zones on parts of the balconies; open areas with white boards that can be partitioned; timber and glass pods, typically for IT-based work; standard classrooms; and science labs. The way these ingredients are laid out, floor by floor, is not always obviously diagrammatic and most parts of the building feel free-flowing, programmatically.

There are some clever, and delightful touches. The fifth floor exterior terrace, for example, sits on top of the theatre segment and can be directly connected to four classrooms using folding walls. And the refectory on the third level opens on to another terrace, which overlooks St Mary's Gardens, with long views over London.

There's a distinctly Scandinavian flavour to these features – a mixture of crisp, pragmatic detailing and what Schmidt Hammer Lassen is fond of describing as "human and democratic" space. The practice's forthcoming library building at the University of Aberdeen will be an even more dramatic expression of light and open space than City of Westminster College.

There's light and open space at the £23m Catmose College too – but it has been produced for very different reasons. The James Review reflects Michael Gove's highly questionable view that the BSF programme allowed architects to cream off outsized profits, and that there should now be learning factories designed with mass production in mind. Catmose combines a 900-pupil academy, Sure Start centre, sports building and outdoor pitches, and a learning disability resource centre. Its design demonstrates Rutland's motto, Multum in Parvo – much in little.

The college comprises a series of simple aluminium-clad pavilions held up on concrete columns. Classrooms are positioned around the edges of the pavilion, with the central spine spaces used as communal resource and social areas. The pavilions are linked by north-south routes at their upper level. Art studios, workshops, and staff offices run along the two ground floor edges of the pavilions, and above them are science, IT and humanities classrooms. The community hub and learning disabilities resource centre occupy their own pavilions.

But, even at a Gove-in-heaven £1,800 per square metre, Jonathan Ellis Miller has managed a showstopper that bears direct comparison with Westminster College's atrium space – supersized "hills" of double-height steps that rise through the middle of the pavilions' central atrium spaces to create highly sociable auditoriums. The staircases rise to open-plan libraries on central decks, from which there are views out to the Rutland countryside. Overhead baffles diffuse noise to a remarkable degree, and the lack of distinct route programming around the pavilions seems to work well; there are no obvious bottlenecks of movement. "And that central space was cheap," says Miller. "That's the whole point. We see low cost as the starting-point of school design."

Miller got the idea from the Hellerup School in Copenhagen, one of Denmark's most radical experiments in educational space-use. It seems the architectural authors of the City of Westminster College don't yet have exclusive rights to "human and democratic" educational design. In our new world of flatpack schools, it's significant that vividly social and functionally clear learning environments can be achieved relatively cheaply. Miller is certain that these new-wave schools can eventually be built for about £1,350 per square metre. Buy two, get one free, Mr Gove?

A tale of two schools

Cost: City of Westminster College cost £70m to design and build, whereas Catmose College in Rutland was delivered for £23m. That translates into £2,900 per sq m and £1,800 per sq m, respectively.

Design ethos: Catmose was conceived as "a machine for learning in, but also a machine that learns". At City of Westminster the aim was to create teaching spaces ranging from big open social learning areas to small pod units.

Students: At City of Westminster 50 languages are spoken and courses range from basic numeracy to science degrees. At Catmose a 900-pupil academy has been combined with a Sure Start centre, sports building, outdoor pitches, and a learning disability resource centre.