Schools and School Design in Africa: An Interview with Ola Uduku

Image of Ola Uduku

Ola Uduku is Reader in Architecture and Dean International for Africa at Edinburgh University’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA). Her research specialisms are the history of educational architecture in Africa and contemporary issues related to social infrastructure provision for minority communities in cities in the ‘West’ and ‘South’. She is also involved in research into environmental analysis, and measurement tools and apps for educational and third sector uses.

She was a founding member of ArchiAfrika and remains involved in their education committee which is committed to improving architectural education and the knowledge of contemporary architectural history in Africa. Recent publications include Beyond Gated Communities, Designing schools for quality: An international, case study-based review and the chapter ‘Spaces for 21st Century Learning’ in the Routledge Handbook of International Education and Development.

olauduku2-1This interview with Dr Uduku took place on the 4th November 2015 and follows a lecture she gave the previous evening, “School Design in Africa: Histories, Challenges and New Processes”, organised by the Manchester Architecture Research Centre. The interview covers: the role of design templates for schools in Africa and possibilities for local adaptation; how history bears on the educational present; whether we can speak about specifically African school design or education, and the role of technology in shaping future educational changes.

By way of introduction could you say a little about what your work has focussed on and what kind of things you’ve been looking at specifically.

Ok, well it’s going on for two decades that I’ve been researching schools. Originally, I took almost a technicist approach (I had done an MPhil in Environmental Design) and saw the school as a very good container for research: it has a very specific time period in which it’s used, it has a very specific function and so forth. So it was all about “Do people feel warm?” or “Do they feel cold?”, particularly in tropical schools. My PhD focussed on Nigerian schools and most of Nigeria is within the tropical zone although Northern Nigeria is much more dry and arid so I was concerned with adequate ventilation, was the lighting adequate – things like that.

But over the years, partly because I’ve always been interested in urban justice – urban infrastructure, social infrastructure – schools, hospitals, clinics, those things all feature in urban areas and my interests took a turn to towards these issues too. I guess the argument here is a developmental one: if you have decent social infrastructure, even in oppressed urban areas, whether Cape Town or in London, the poor or those who are disenfranchised and disadvantaged will be able to achieve some kind of developmental condition. If there aren’t the schools, if there aren’t the hospitals, you’re living in pretty much oppressed situations wherever you are in the world. So that then focussed back on to what schools should be or how schools could best deliver social infrastructure to a broad range of people.

And that’s where I’m coming from nowadays although I still focus on African schools because according to the World Bank and other organisations, it’s still the most disadvantaged continent despite there being good examples of emerging countries within Africa. So it’s a question of how schools can be better designed in these situations or indeed in informal slums or settlements across Africa. That’s my interest now. I feel that schools could do much better – we’ve had 200 years (plus or minus) of education and we still seem to be struggling to get it right, so reflecting on that and what might be done.

In terms of history then, one of the things that most interests me from what you’ve written is that we have these – it seems with all good intentions – school design templates from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In their attempts to promote development in African countries, international organisations established these templates for school design. Is there a tension there between design coming from the centre (wherever that is) and how school design could or should be locally inflected?

I think there is, because whether we like it or not, we’re in a global world so there’s that urge for standardisation – whether it’s ISO or BREEAM or whatever – particularly in buildings because there’s so many measurables. The intersection between education and the building is especially interesting because you can regulate how your building is built but also in terms of education (as we’re seeing in the UK with government and statistics for everything) – it leads to a series of questions namely: how do people perform? And, in response, there’s a series of quantifiers or measures. So for school design itself I suppose UNESCO was the original post-war allocator of standards and that again was very, very well-meaning. There was a really big thrust to make sure everybody was equal so the whole idea about the United Nations’ Bill of Rights, education comes very near the top – there’s a right to education, a right to shelter.

And the issue I think for them was “How do we say that this education [including school design] is effective?” We standardise it so at least we can understand what everybody’s attaining and how that’s going to be delivered. That’s one level and the other is delivery itself. I think in Africa and perhaps less so in South East Asia, there was a legacy of both colonial history and a missionary past, which gave the feeling that there’s a network of schools, we can build on that. So originally UNESCO and then others worked with the Architectural Association’s Tropical School and the BRE (Building Research Establishment, Garston, Watford) because the BRE had already established guidance pamphlets for colonial building officers, which later became known as the “Overseas Building Notes”. These notes can be thought of as a tropical building manual, for use if you were a district officer and you needed to build your colonial hut in Delhi or northern Nigeria, for example.

Ok, so you might not be an expert but with this manual you could think yourself to be!

They were originally called the Colonial Building Notes! Then they changed to the Overseas Building Notes and eventually the BRE, and that I would say, is the link to what has now transmogrified to BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology). There’s therefore been an interesting and historic trajectory of building ‘advice’. Advice has always happened in different forms and guises, and schools have been one of the major places for this advice to be given and received.

Thus in the past, there were people moving between work at the BRE in Garston and teaching on the tropical programme at the Architectural Association in London, people who also had a hand in school design. My feeling is that these templates were well meaning and those who put them together were people with a lot of experience, but this experience was in the design of schools for the traditional (English) form of educational delivery. It would be a bit like us going back to the post-war schools’ programme in England when they’d just raised the school leaving age and suddenly needed more classrooms. There’s a development of these standards in a rush to build school capacity and so the HORSA Huts (Hutting Operation for the Raising of the School-leaving Age) get built. It’s done quickly, just build these huts, just go. Then, in England, they knew they’d have 35 or so students in a class – a bulge situation might be 40. The problem is that these were the similar standards that were then transported to Africa or Asia or wherever – with very little moderation or consideration to school populations in very different socio-cultural context.

Ok so get them up quickly. And was there money and interest in the system for those ideas to be tinkered with?

That’s right, so here (in the UK) the designs then develop. Accompanying that is another strand, coming from America and elsewhere, child-focused learning and so forth, so there’s a transition in use over time, the kindergarten system, the Steiner system, the open plan…

And do these ideas find their way into the templates used in African countries?

I think they go into pedagogy more than design and that’s where there can be a disconnect. In education I would say it stops being the built environment or the school environment and it all becomes the educator. So the educator is being taught in new forms of pedagogy, but has to come back to the old school design.

The only place where I saw the beginning of child-based learning was in South Africa where in Primaries 1 and 2 they actually had the children on the ground with large mats, all sat cross-legged and they rarely used the tables and chairs. But in most schools they didn’t even have child-sized tables and chairs – they’d be using adult ones from age 5 upwards. Even within a normal school, the adaptation wasn’t there. In old schools they’re still working in this elongated classroom form. There are one or two schools in Ghana that have dividers you could open and close but even there they weren’t being used. They were either open all the time or closed all the time.

So there’s sometimes an element of notional flexibility built into the design but in reality, in the way that it comes to be used, it comes to find a steady state quite quickly?

Yes, practices stay the same. And that issue with the template is there. It originated I think with these UNESCO standards developed from about 1948 onwards and it is important because different schools have different requirements. If you are in a village area or a very small town then fair enough, you can probably deal with a basic standard because you’re going to have a relatively stable and possibly even small population – you might not need that flexibility. But once we talk about the city, that is, communities under pressure in informal settlements, you certainly need some flexibility. Then it should really be much more case-based or specific to the location.

Alternatively, if you’re going to do a template, it should err towards a very flexible or ‘accommodatable’ plan that will accept large numbers. I would say that Brazil and parts of Latin America do that quite well because they haven’t got rid of the shift system [when one physical building has two distinct school populations, one often having school classes in the morning, another in the afternoon or evening.] Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s UNESCO and others were pushing for the end of the shift system because there had been research which suggested that children learn better in the daytime. But Brazil and Peru were able to balance that with the need for families to earn a living. So better for children to have albeit not fantastic education at night than no education at all.

And higher levels of health possibly because they’re economically more viable?

Yes, so effectively the schools were working double time. Some of the research in Latin America showed something similar: people wanted access to evening classes and were also pressing to have their schools open for longer which was in direct conflict with what was both then government and UNESCO policy to stop these evening classes. So it’s about understanding local knowledge systems, taking an anthropological view.

Local knowledge systems against perhaps not just a form of colonial power but the state’s control? The state often says: “This is our new system, you conform to it”.

Different governments want to implant their system, whatever it is. And that happens everywhere. Think of Sure Start in England, all these social benefits are politically important. At a national level, in African countries too, there can be a hegemonic attitude towards it: “This is our education policy – we are delivering as best we can and it’s in conformity with international standards so it must be good.” And some of it is back to ‘stats’ – it’s easier for the government in Nigeria to say: “We’ve built a thousand schools!”

Yes! You can’t touch that, you can’t deny it.

It’s cleaner, it’s neater. But the nitty gritty is the issue – is this initiative actually doing what it says it will do? And, having said that, there has to be some form of standard, but it’s how you’re able to account for what you’re calling a standard and indeed how that then relates to a wider framework. That framework is much more fluid than we say it is. There are ways in which people can respond to things. These ways might still be measurable but perhaps not in the neat, standardised ways expected. The need for that much more centralised standard has more to do with efficiency in bureaucracy as opposed to what’s necessarily best for students and certainly if you’re not in a conventional system. And I would argue most people living in informal societal systems are already in non-conventional educational systems in that sense.

This idea of convention is one you approach in a really interesting way – through history – so the role that trade links between Africa and Liverpool and Manchester, say, shaped the appearance of school buildings, the pitched roofs, the Manchester-made ironwork, the schoolhouse exported 4,000 miles. But also how we perceive the continent as a continent and what that emphasises as well as hides in terms of ethnicity, communities, class, globalising trends and so forth – to what extent can we talk about African school design?

That’s correct, there’s a great deal of difference. At the top end you might as well be at Eton frankly. There is an issue around identity as well which becomes critical, indeed what is Africa? It’s a continent, not a place. But in some situations, I think the bigger countries – South Africa, Nigeria, probably Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya – they are strong enough to have an identity, and they do because they have recognised and internationally ‘benchmarked’ examination systems which serve to validate the educational experience in their countries. For example, there’s the West African Schools Certificate which is validated across I think Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and also Liberia and the Gambia.

And that’s in publicly funded schools?

Yes, and they keep a standard, an equivalence across them. But, when it comes to how it’s actually delivered, the best schools that deliver are much more likely to be like the old Grammar schools you see in the UK. So there’s a direct correlation between class and assumed mode of education that is very Western-based but also tied into a Western-ness of the 1950s and 60s. It hasn’t really moved on. Anything newer is often taken as being slightly new-fangled and there’s always that worry about what that final qualification is and whether that will give you access into international formal education.

And are the elite schools within those 5 countries buying in exams from Pearson or Cambridge or whoever?

No, whilst some private elite schools are teaching to the IB or other international exam standards, the elite, government-owned state schools, such as Kings and Achimota College, (in Nigeria and Ghana respectively) are still working towards the domestic system. As they are educating students from generally privileged backgrounds, these students attain the grades to enable them either to transfer to A-level institutions abroad or gain entrance to tertiary institutions locally and internationally with their results. Which school you go to becomes even more important than here in the UK.

A government like Nigeria’s still wants to say “A school like Kings College, Lagos produces fantastic results – I don’t know why you need to send your students abroad!” But there’s only 50 places or whatever in King’s College, most of which will be taken by elite children whose parents have been to the school so…. So there is that direct relationship between good schooling and class. In South Africa a few of the townships, particularly after the immediate end of Apartheid were able to benefit from philanthropists like Oprah Winfrey – she set up a girls’ school in the township of Soweto, or nearby, and the students have attained amazing exam grades – but basically this is a one off situation, as the school was bankrolled by the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and so had more facilities etc than the standard township school!

The statistics for South Africa show depressingly, even more than two decades after the end of ‘apartheid’, that the schools in the townships are doing incredibly badly. The middle classes, even if they have an identity with Soweto, often send their kids to schools in the historically white suburbs, which would have been ‘white schools’ in the past. And even in South Africa education is still very tied towards that whole Grammar School system. You get a bit of liberation at the junior levels in terms of child-based education but at middle level upwards the system is focused on attainment of exam grades in the traditional academic subjects which kids need to enter into universities and higher education. The traditional high status, academic universities in South Africa still have not been able to have the expected representation of South African blacks in enrolment due to the persistence of poor examination grades from students who have attended township schools.

Interestingly, technology may be a game-changer. For example, one of the state-based, former white schools, Westerford in Cape Town, realised it had only a few really good Maths teachers so they built a really large classroom and worked on peer-to-peer learning. It was really group-based as a way to cope with the numbers but it worked well. The ability to share widely know-how and knowledge from key teachers is something other schools could easily leverage.

That’s interesting, last night you talked a little about peer-to-peer and at one point you made a link back to the monitorial system! And one of the reasons education became mass education was by keeping the costs very, very low.

And having people control the class. In its best form, with peer-to-peer you have the information there, you’ve got your teacher who knows the class so it is a little like the monitorial system. And here you often have mixed-age classes so it’s a bit like project work – you know the talents of all those who are working together. It’s like a tutorial system but the students themselves are the tutors rather than having tutorial assistants. Peers with different talents but guided by a set of students who are at a higher level of understanding – monitors for want of a better word. In the old system of grammar schools, they’d be in the top sets but here they’re spread around.

Ok, so the practice of this happening isn’t based so much on educational theory but economics?

There’s the economics focus but pedagogy does show this works – you’re closer to the person. There’s no doubt that there’s an efficacy in developing countries in using these systems if you use them well. The problem is that often – and this is where technology is interesting – even the teachers are not necessarily as well-trained as they should be. How can you do peer-to-peer learning if you don’t quite understand the system? There’s this cascade of issues in teaching that I don’t think they’ve ever been able to deal with on a political level. As usual, the best teachers are less likely to stay in schools or even if they are, they can be bought out, in a neoliberal system by the rich schools in London, here, or Lagos.

Interestingly, in terms of technology, Australia’s pioneered a lot of distance learning and some of that work might be useful in African countries, especially where there’s a problem of teacher shortages because there is a problem in rural areas – teachers don’t necessarily want to go there. And so thinking about technology and its ability to allow people to act as facilitators may lead to a ‘leapfrog’ forward in things happening. My argument would be that this has to be tied to the provision of facilities too, though. Because again, if I can’t do my homework because I have no space or time to do it in my chaotic home, then the school will need to have this facility for me to use after school hours …

Something else you mentioned last night was autonomy as a way of making systems locally relevant. And I was thinking about a contrast – perhaps a false one – between autonomy and the power of the centre and how that relates to your discussion on the origins of schools – how a system was set up in Africa by the mission quite often. So the mission had the school, the dispensary, the church…

Yes, a kind of hub.

So I suppose the centre then is an extension of those colonial trade routes you were talking about, how they led back to Manchester or Liverpool or wherever it was. So the centre establishes itself via this mission. But now discourses of development show a stronger interest in an idea of autonomy, local contextualisation: ‘the centre can’t do everything’. So maybe not the centre versus autonomy but the centre and autonomy?

Yes, I think there has to be a much more fluid relationship between the two. It’s a negotiation of what’s important. Some things we need the centre to help out with, some things we don’t. And if we go back to energy – the whole thing about – do we have solar collectors and photovoltaics (PVs)? In very remote, village settings, they will give you power. But really the model most of us are dealing with now is one where we can feed into the grid most of the time and only need PVs to provide occasional support. In a way it reflects what we were talking about in terms of education – you still need a wider grid for regulation or standardization of final outcomes but how you produce that is much more to do with what self-agency you have, with how much community capital you have and can build on. That’s what neo-liberals are trying with academy schools and so on.

This is something I have written about in terms of social infrastructure. We think about gated communities as being awful but in certain situations, in lawless parts of Lagos, you group together, you pay an amount to the ‘Migad’ [nightwatchman] – not like a private security firm but rather someone who needs a job. You pay him in a kind of transactional relationship and if it becomes really bad you call in the police. So there’s a situation where local agency can work but obviously what you don’t want is local agency to only benefit those who are best able to deal with it. So in certain cases you need to support local agency to take place.

The typical model which I think UNESCO was trying to sell after WWII – in a benign way – you have big governments and these big systems will mean benefits trickle down. And when you discount for corruption, it’s just not going to happen. There are certainly communities who, with a bit more ability to develop forms of agency, are going to get a better deal and technology will support that. Or should do, depending on how it’s used.

Are PVs sustainable enough now, robust enough to work long term?

Yes, over time the price has really come down and they normally have something between 15 and 20 years lifespan. And the point is, if you lived in remote Mali, the cost of the grid getting to you may already be cost effective but in Northern Nigeria, far from the local grid, it might be very different. So in certain cases PVs are almost a no-brainer, especially where many of the on-grid power systems are unreliable, PVs can be especially useful.

And in terms of funding for PVs, where does that tend to come from?

Well this is the issue. A lot now is from NGOs but I know Nigeria has had a business relationship with Siemens. So the Lagos Secretariat in Ikeja has its street lighting system entirely solar powered using PV cells. This has been achieved apparently by some kind of direct grant from the German development agency, so there are successful exemplars. However, to the best of my knowledge there’s been no direct grants to schools. And this is where again it comes back to health too. There’s no doubt that the World Health Organisation is looking at ways it can have penetration in terms of where it has its health provision. Sometimes it’s much easier than you’d think – you’re pushing on open doors – because previous systems have already set up networks. It’s certainly do-able and the prices are coming down on a daily basis. And governments are pushing and certainly the companies do want to get in there.

And the newest generation of PVs, they’re relatively maintenance free?

Yes, the technology is very well established now. It’s a bit like cars in Cuba, there is local know-how which is available to help with basic maintenance issues, it’s not brain science. If anything it begins to develop skills. It’s really about integrating these different bits. Partly that’s inhibited by organisational silo-ing but with community buy-in, things can really change. Certainly in South Africa – remember this is a country where people were burning down schools for political reasons. Now if you can turn that anger into something productive, if people can see something in the systems that are being given them. And education is key – everybody wants their kids to go to school, the problem is just to make sure that schools are available and functional.



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