Seeing the light: Inside Britain's first eco-school

Britain's dilapidated schools are being rebuilt and a vision of modern education is unfolding

When Bristol Brunel Academy opened last September the country got its first glimpse of just how different tomorrow's secondary schools are going to be. Its biomass boilers and flexible learning spaces showed that the old "cell and bell" model of education has finally been consigned to history, and the future of schooling looks very different indeed.

The Bristol school is the first to be finished under the massive Building Schools for the Future programme, and hundreds more BSF schools are in the pipeline. Meanwhile, other new schools and extensions are being built from different funding streams and slowly – and sometimes painfully – an exciting vision of tomorrow's schools and classrooms is beginning to emerge from the shambolic early years of this Government's ambitious plans to drag our dilapidated schools into the 21st century.

These new schools and classrooms are like nothing we have seen before. They express a changed vision of teaching and learning, cater for the needs of the whole community, and are flexible enough to cope with an evolving approach to education. Environmental sustainability is at their heart, and new technology is in their lifeblood.

They include moveable walls, social and multi-use spaces, unisex toilets, innovative ventilation, state-of-the-art technology, the use of smart materials, playgrounds in the sky and heating stored underground.

But they are not utopian visions drawn up by dreamers. Architects, contractors and planners are increasingly pooling their knowledge about school design, while teachers and pupils are helping designers focus on practicalities like classroom temperatures and layout, the need for adequate storage space and what sort of buildings best discourage bullying.

Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments, says this "engagement of stakeholders" is particularly important. "There is just no point building schools people dislike and resent."

We are also, he says, beginning to see a real seriousness about sustainability, and no more design for design's sake. "Now, everything, right down to the furniture, is increasingly related to teaching and learning. And schools are becoming a real community resource."

In addition, he points out, new schools will themselves become part of the teaching process so that pupils will be able to monitor how their building uses energy or harvests rainwater, and use this in their learning. "The building will become, if you like, the third teacher."

The Government began improving school buildings 11 years ago. At first it simply aimed to replace outside toilets and build enough classrooms, so every child could be in a class fewer than 30. But by 2004 this had blossomed into huge plans to improve all further education colleges and half of all primary schools, as well as replacing or refurbish all secondary schools.

But school building had not been done on this scale since the Victorian and post-War eras and no one knew much about it – perhaps not surprisingly, the first new schools were riddled with problems. When the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) reviewed five years' worth of new schools in 2006 it pronounced half of them finished to a poor or mediocre standard, and only one in 20 excellent.

BSF has suffered huge delays, problems with procurements, faulty planning and outright catastrophes. As Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, the body charged with delivering the programme, said when he took on his new role in 2006. "Everyone across government accepts that the early targets were not based on any experience and were not realistic."

Problems remain with bidding processes, budgets and timetables. And some critics feel that new designs are still too conservative. Eminent education consultant and innovator Stephen Heppell points to stunning schools in Tasmania and Iceland which are redrawing the educational map by "blurring structural edges" and a creating collegiate atmosphere.

But with improved procedures and growing experience, things are looking much brighter.

"We had to go at this from a standing start, and the early schools weren't great," says Mairi Johnson, director of enabling at CABE. "Now there is deeper reflection about what life in schools should be like. People are thinking about how classrooms can be clustered together and how the circulation within buildings will work. There is also the question of how big a school should be, and how pupils can be divided up into smaller units within a bigger school. In many ways schools are starting to look much more like universities."

Sustainability, too, is on the agenda big-time and new BSF schools must cut their carbon use by at least half. "And the Department of Children, Schools and Families is a joy to work with on this," says Johnson. "I can't speak too highly of them. They have really stuck their neck out, and we now have an achieveable time span on zero carbon."

Even so, the bulk of this new vision has still to be built, although some innovative new schools are showing up across the country. Visitors to Chafford Hundred Campus, in Thurrock, Essex, find primary and secondary schools sharing a site with a library and other community facilities. The moveable walls and high-tech specifications make the buildings seem bright and businesslike, but it is how the campus underpins an integrated and personal vision of education that is the most revolutionary aspect of the project.

Likewise, the Academy of St Francis of Assisi, in Liverpool, looks good with its energy roof and timber-decked external theatre, but it is the way that the building encourages pupils to incorporate ideas of sustainability into their learning that makes it most notable. Meanwhile, the architectural practice Walters and Cohen recently won a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award for Redbrook Hayes Primary School, in Rugeley, Staffordshire, which includes outdoor learning spaces for every classroom and a central hub design with no corridors.

Gavin Elliott, director of architecture for Building Design Partnership's Manchester office, says the scale of new school building makes school work "increasingly attractive to leading practices and construction companies and the level of knowledge and skill is increasing. There is a real levelling up of quality, and much more thinking about pedagogy and space."

He is one of the country's most experienced school architects and one of relatively few who has seen his ideas turned into reality. His honeycomb design for a prototype primary school, christened "the Beehive School", led to a commission to rebuild Devonshire Primary School, in Blackpool, after an arson attack. The area was run down and the idea was to create a striking building which made a positive statement about regeneration.

At first the headteacher was sceptical about the vertical design, which includes an internal street and semi-external play decks, but after being closely involved in consultations he became enthusiastic.

A year on Elliott says the school, which won a RIBA award last year, "looks great and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm told that attendance is better, more families are applying to get in, and the results in key stage three are up."

Anatomy of an eco-school: Howe Dell, Hertfordshire

With its crisp, rectangular lines and wooden cladding, Britain's first eco-school looks, say the staff who work there, "like a giant sauna". The zero carbon building, designed by the architects Rubble Wilkinson is sited along the runway of the old British Aerospace aerodrome in Hatfield, Herts, and has a long central corridor that pays homage to the Comets that used to fly from there.

Until last autumn the children of Howe Dell School went to school in a Tudor building, which was picturesque but ill-suited to modern education. So their faces, this September, when they walked into their airy new classrooms, were, according to head Debra Massey, "a picture".

The £10m project includes a community hall, children's centre and nursery provision, and has been planned as a hub of children's services in the north of the town. The innovative school has a rain water recycling system, and energy collected from the playground area is stored underground to heat or cool the school. There are solar panels, colourful plastic work surfaces made from recycled mobile phones and yogurt pots, a bamboo floor and lots of natural ventilation. Furniture and other materials have been locally sourced, while outside there is a wetland area and there will eventually be a wind turbine.

The school head's close involvement with the project ensured that the practicalities of school life were held in mind. Thanks to her, there is a calm and unifying blue decor throughout the school, and carpet tiles that can be moved around to spread wear.

The air is strikingly fresher than that in most primary schools, and there's a great deal of natural light. "In one assembly a special needs boy put up his hand and said, 'Look, there's a bit of our school missing there', so I took him by the hand and took him over and made him look up and said, "What can you see?" He looked for a moment and then said, 'Clouds'. Some of the staff got quite teary!" says Massey. "In fact, we've had a few tearful moments since we moved in."

This is partly because the project was beset with such difficulties, including the first contractor going into administration, that the new school had begun to seem like something that would never happen.

Now everyone is settling into its new technology. "We are having to tweak and change things. It's a question of getting to know the building and being comfortable with it," says Chris Dean, facilities manager and part of the school's leadership team.

That includes sometimes having to wait for the hot water to come through the taps. "But it's a fantastic place to work," says teacher Kate Hawton. "There's such a calm ethos and so much natural light."

Howe Dell had some unsettled years before moving to its new site, but the new building has helped transform pupils' behaviour and attitudes, and parents are now queuing up to get their children into the school.

The school plans to use its new campus to enhance every aspect of education. "When we had an open evening in November, it was clear from how the children showed their parents round that they felt it was their school," says Massey. "That sense of ownership was there." HW