What makes a good school building?

Education Business chats to RIBA’s Caroline Buckingham about the importance of good design when developing new school buildings and what should be done to tackle the pupil place shortage

What makes a good school building?

A good school is driven by it’s educational vision and ethos. The role of school buildings, whether new or partly refurbished, can facilitate this vision. In school design there are many common parts, teaching spaces, staff spaces, and large spaces. However one size does not fit all. The school building needs to function, eliminating challenges such as cramped spaces, lack of natural light, and bad acoustics. What’s more, school buildings should relate to their surrounding community, each offering its unique set of challenges and opportunities.
 
What impact does a good school building have on pupils and staff?

Having space and natural light should be an absolute given in a school building. It should be welcoming and uplifting, providing a sense of ownership and pride for pupils and staff. Research has been carried out over the years on the impact of well designed buildings and it’s proved hard to measure, in terms of its impact on educational attainment, low pupil truancy, better staff retention and productivity, or perhaps a combination of all these factors. The research carried out by the RIBA, Better spaces for Learning, helps define and quantify the value of good school design. It is common sense; the environment you are in does have a massive impact on how you feel.
 
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s school building programme?

Through Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP), money has been invested in the educational school estate, however due to the lack of investment for years, this has focused on the backlog maintenance required across the whole school estate, alongside pupil place needs. The recent challenges were in the primary schools with a lack of pupil places to meet the demand. This is now being reflected with a shortage in secondary school places. For each Local Authority it can be hard to predict demand especially when needing to plan five years ahead, and any construction process takes a similar amount of time to deliver the expansion needed. The current government programme has been to provide choice for parents with more schools moving towards Academy status, the creation of Free Schools with a definitive education vision and creation of vocationally led schools like the University Technical Colleges (UTC). The challenge is to provide a school estate that is sustainable long term. Short‑term solutions where quality is compromised due to quick and cheap decisions will build up problems for the future.
 
What should the government do to improve its school estate?

Continual investment in the school estate is required to provide a good level of maintenance and to make sure all schools are fit for purpose. There is no reason to still have crumbling and overcrowded facilities. Investment is required in the longer term where it may be more expensive to achieve the quality initially, however over the years the school estate will be more robust and sustainable, with lower running costs. We are fairly traditional in the way we think of how a school should be and the facilities they offer. Having great facilities that are open for a short time in the day and shut for 14 weeks in the year doesn’t make good sense. Lack of external areas for play and sports can be challenging, however having a more joined up approach including sharing of facilities with other schools, the community and universities would result in overall better quality offering with a longer term plan for management and maintenance.   
 
How important is the design stage in getting the school building right?

The most critical part in school design – and it should be the very first priority – is having the educational vision set down, whether it’s for a large new school or small expansion to an existing school. Understanding how the school functions, how many pupils it has and how they arrive is vital. Questions at the outset whether the design is looking at a small element or whole school and whether there a wider masterplan. The design brief can then
translate this vision into spaces and be used as a working document throughout the design stage, construction stage and when the building is in-use. After a school goes through the process of design and construction the feedback is an essential part which often gets overlooked. Referred to as Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), the evidence gathered should be used to assist to help improve the next generation of learning facilities.
 
How can a well-designed and constructed school building impact on running and maintenance costs?

If the principles of longer term management and running of the school buildings are considered at the design brief stage, then for a small initial investment, this will have a great long term impact. It can be very simple considerations in the design stage such as the orientation of spaces in the building to avoid overheating and glare from sunlight or specifying materials that may be more expensive initially such as floor finishes, however they last 20 years rather than two years. In a drive towards making one size fit all, new school buildings often ended up with over complicated services being fitted with complex and expensive mechanical and electrical equipment that would not be needed if the right design solutions had been adopted. The cost of the up-keep of these systems can be enormous and the failure to do so has left some schools struggling with buildings that are simply not up to standard.
 
What should the government do to tackle the pupil‑place shortage?

As pupil numbers grow and budgets become tighter, it is perhaps time for a rethink on how to accommodate more pupils. Technology has changed and people’s attitude to their work place has become far more flexible and diverse, however this hasn’t really been reflected in schools. The real pressure for school expansion is in urban areas where the school sites are already overcrowded and additional land is expensive to acquire. In London 69 per cent of schools are over subscribed. School places could be increased by lengthening the school day, opening longer over the year, having variety for teachers and creative ‘term’ planning. Sharing of facilities with surrounding users in the leisure, sports and community would lead not only to having access to the best quality spaces but also greater long term sustainable efficiency.

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