Award for designer who transformed failing school

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The Independent Online

A woman whose modernisation of a struggling inner-city school helped reverse a history of poor performance among pupils has been named Designer of the Year.

A woman whose modernisation of a struggling inner-city school helped reverse a history of poor performance among pupils has been named Designer of the Year.

Hilary Cottam, 39, was rewarded for her transformation of public-sector buildings, including prisons, schools and hospitals. She received the £25,000 prize from the Design Museum, which recognises British designers who have made the greatest contribution in the past year.

Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum and chair of the judging panel, said the jury had unanimously voted in favour of Cottam's contemporary approach to design, which she said had a significant impact on the social sector. "She is using design in a broader sense to achieve real, tangible improvement," said Rawsthorn. "Any truly great example of design must succeed on a sensual level but it absolutely has to succeed on a function level as well."

She praised Cottam's redesign of Kingsdale School in Dulwich, south London, part of a £10m government pilot project, involving pupils, staff and the architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan amongst others, which elevated the school from one of the most poorly performing in the "special measures" category to feature among the 20 most improved schools in the nation. "She is obviously not a conventional designer but a contemporary one who uses intelligence and imagination as a strategic tool to improve and modernise areas of critical importance to public life," said Rawsthorn. "She worked collaboratively with school staff, the local community and pupils to find out what they needed and to produce a model modern school.

"Some of the changes were very practical ­ many older schools have narrow corridors which are prime areas for bullies to corner their victims in. One way to discourage that was to create wider passageways through the school."

After receiving the award, Cottam said: "I'm amazed, I'm very overcome and so honoured. I believe passionately in what I do and hope it will draw attention to and raise the debate about design in public services.

"The best designers in the 1950s were involved in the public sector, but that's not the case now. We deliver within normal budget and everything we do is making practical change. I hope this will show that design can make a real impact on some of the intractable social issues that Britain faces today. Here are some examples that show what differences design can make and how more people can get involved.''

Cottam also worked on a proposal for a modern prison in conjunction with the Home Office, in which she suggested that prison cells which had greater resources for prisoners would increase productivity and cut reoffending rates.

As director of the experimental RED team at the Design Council, Cottam is now working to redefine the role of design in daily life, starting with health and citizenship.

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