Rising to the challenge: an interview with Helen Taylor, architect

Helen Taylor is Practice Director at Scott Brownrigg, responsible for the strategic planning and implementation of programmes to enhance technical competence and expertise across the whole company. As well as specialising in education design, Helen is committed to sustainability, diversity and inclusive design. She is well-recognised through her collaboration with industry bodies and is a founder member and co-chair of Architects for Change, the RIBA’s Equality & Diversity Forum; Chair of the RIBA Inclusive Design Committee; and Convenor of the RIBA Schools Client Forum; Co-chair of the Construction Industry Council Green Construction Panel; a mentor for the Construction Industry Council Fluid Mentoring Programme.

Helen Taylor

Tell me about your own early experiences of school.

My birthday’s in July and I don’t know if it’s because we’d moved or because I was young in the year, but I remember arriving at school and everybody else already being there and me being the last to arrive, or that’s how it felt. That’s my memory, of always being slightly on the back foot.

The school was a Victorian building, but of the classrooms I just remember high windows and not being able to see out. I remember running down the central corridor with my coat on my back like Batman and being told off.  The hall was off the side of one corridor but open plan, there was no wall, just columns and a few steps down and they had curtains across it, so when something was going on you could kind of peek down into the hall.  I mostly remember things like the big performances in that hall, not the day to day ones.  But I did like that hall, it’s the place that really stuck in my mind.

The playground was just tarmac everywhere. The school eventually got knocked down because they had asbestos in it and they couldn’t afford to clean it out, so it’s now a carpark.  And I have slight pang every time I drive past, ‘Oh my school used to be there and now it’s a carpark!’

But that was only the infant part of the school so my stronger memory is of the junior school, which was in a huge area. We had to get a bus to get there and my mum remembers me being insistent that I should walk down to get the bus by myself and I must have only been about seven or eight.  We used to go to church every Sunday to this little modern church that was basically part of this whole complex, so I had a really strong impression of it.   I really liked it because it was a new building and it had massive grounds with a little wood – I remember playing in the little copse at play time.  And because the church was there as well I felt like it was really ours. It was a really strong part of my life, we were there all the time.

I remember the corridors more than the classrooms. The classrooms were much lighter than the infants’ school, the windows were bigger and there was more out there: you could see outside much better, although I was obviously bigger as well. I remember there being a really nice big central corridor that was open-plan with a library and break-out space and things there and we used to like working out there because it felt different from working in the classrooms. My main memory of the hall was at lunchtime, queueing up outside for lunch and then the smells of lunch and kind of turning your nose up at it.


It sounds as though the teachers had a real sense of trust in the pupils at that school.

Yes, I think so. I don’t have any memory of it being strict. Certainly, the whole ability to go and play in the woods at lunchtime was fantastic. They had massive fields that went on and on and on. It’s all been sold off for housing, of course, now.

We weren’t really encouraged, I’d say, to go to the far end of the field, but mostly because it took so long to get back! So the teachers would be blowing the whistle and ringing the bell and it would take you ages to get back. To be honest not many of us bothered because it was too far. And we all really liked having this wood and there was, basically, a big hedgerow that split up the two bits of the area, so there was a hard netball court which was slightly sunken and a bank up to these little woods and there was a big hedgerow that split where the hard play and the soft play was and we just used to be in and out of there all the time. I don’t have any memory of being told off for doing that so yes, it was very free from that point of view.


And your secondary school?

My secondary school in Southampton was an ex-convent building. They had a bit of modern building as well, but it was a maze, an absolute maze.  I must have spent the first term getting lost, but that was quite fun ‘… where does this staircase go?  … If I go through the science lab I’ll get to the library.’ You never knew how it all worked and fitted together, it was like something out of Harry Potter where the staircase keeps moving. And that was quite fun and exciting and I just can’t imagine a school like that these days, I can’t imagine that being managed.


Did you design any schools as an architecture student?

We did design a Montessori school, funnily enough. And I remember really enjoying researching that. We were given a beautiful site – a walled garden – and thinking about scale and the size of the kids and really getting into that.  I come from a big family and so I’m used to having kids around all the time and understanding what their energy’s like and how much they can focus, so I’m sure that helped, having a strong sense of what children are like.


And as a qualified architect?

One of the first school projects I did was St Mary’s Junior school in Twickenham – I did the early concept design for that – and it was meant to be like upturned boats, it’s close to the river.  I really loved it and got into doing school design from that start.  It’s the mix of liking being around kids and teachers – I really like that environment.  I really love working with young people and it’s very easy to have a conversation, there’s no high expectations and you can really give them some skills and learning so that’s been a real part of my working in schools.


Tell me about that process – how you communicate your own ideas and draw on theirs – what’s the balance of that?

The way it’s worked best, and every school I’ve worked on has had a slightly different opportunity, is by doing lots of listening and walking around to see what works and what doesn’t work and trying to understand from them what works in a space – focusing on what you want to do, how you want it to work, the operational side of things and the curriculum side of things.  Working with children (and I’ve worked more with secondary school children than primary) it’s more about trying to inspire ideas by giving them images, pens and paper, things that they can understand.  You have to communicate very clearly.  Not by drawing plans but models are always brilliant, and anything 3D too, and it’s always lovely when you’ve done displays for the students.

At Barnfield West Academy in Luton, a late BSF project, we managed to speak to every single child in the school because the head teacher was totally committed. She was trying to transform that school and part of her approach was, ‘We’re getting a new building so let’s use it to engage with the parents, engage with the kids and teachers’.  We had a whole day (of working with the staff), we had every single teacher in the hall, looking at different parts of the curriculum and parts of the space, pens, paper, images, discussion, brilliant!


What do you think stops some architectural practices from working in that way when they are designing schools?

Well, I think there’s two things that stop it. For the architects themselves, either they lack experience or they lack time. For one of the three primary schools we’re working on now, one of them we haven’t spoken to the school at all.  The EFA (Education Funding Agency) the delivery arm of the Department for Education, are  the clients and they have ownership of the design and the process and are saying, ‘The school’s individual views need to be managed ; we end up with all different things; it delays the process, we’ll be the client we’ll agree the brief and the design and if they want the building then they have to accept the design on offer, essentially.’ I find that very frustrating: if you don’t talk to the users you introduce risk. Unfortunately I think it actually delays the process sometimes and also risks spending money on a building that might not work for that school and have to be changed again.

So I think sometimes it is the process, the procurement route stops it happening, you haven’t got the time, or the fees, or the person who is paying the fees says no. The best school designs that seem have the most impact that people love the most are ones where they’ve really been involved. It gives them that sense of ownership.  And every single school is different, no school is the same. Every community is different, every background is different and the history of the school is different. I find it really hard to see a school as just a building.  They aren’t, they’re a representation of a whole set of situations that’s going on, so it’s very hard.


How has the current government influenced your day-to-day practice of the design of schools?

The conversation five or ten years ago was about learning and people would use the word transformation and you would be talking about innovation in the future.  Now it’s about teaching, it’s about basic needs, those are the kind of words that get bandied about now.  No bells and whistles, keep it simple, the area is very tight that we have to work with and it just has to be very standard.

So the way we’re trying to approach it with those limitations is to say ‘Well, let’s give them the best, the best ‘bottom-line’, if you like, that they can build on in the future.  So let’s make the classrooms as light and as airy and comfortable as we can and let’s make the corridors as flexible as we can so that at least they’ve got something they can build over time because, you know, things change, you never know what they’re going to need.  Schools expand, numbers increase and there’s always need for change, but that’s much less of a driver now. We know that there isn’t going to be more money so we try to make the most of what we are given.


What is the most challenging aspect of your current work with schools?

The thing that we find the most frustrating these days is the lack of flexibility and the lack of being able to talk to the people who are going to use the school.  A schedule of accommodation is a starting point as far as we’re concerned but the money and how it’s spent is different in every single school.  Because of the environment you’re working with you might have to spend more money working on the envelope of the building because of noise or air quality or those things, especially in London with the air quality, so if we had more flexibility with the money we could say, ‘OK, we have to spend a bit more with the envelope, let’s do something a bit different with the area we’ve got to make it work’. But the way that the EFA assesses is all tick boxes so you end up having to cut corners in places and I think that’s poor for the durability of those schools in the long term.

These three schools I’m working on now, they’re brand new schools, so they’ve got no history, they’ve got no kids, some of them haven’t even got a head teacher yet so you’re having to create some grounding for them to take it forward and give them something they can work with.  And that’s quite hard, much harder to do when you can’t find out what matters to them.


Is it possible to include small resource and intervention places outside the classroom within the new-build contemporary primary school?

The schedules of accommodation that we get to work with now are very constrained, so we’re always trying to provide those opportunities for the ‘break-out’ because that’s what … I know my kids need that.  My kids’ school has got beautiful wide corridors with lots of space for break-out and lots of space for circulation outside the classroom. Not a lot of dedicated group-rooms but quite a lot of hidey-holes and things, which I think is quite nice.

When we were visiting schools for my own children we saw another local school, a brand new school.  Their hall was a bit smaller, the ceiling was lower, the classrooms were very nice and their playground was lovely but they just had one corridor for all the classrooms and I remember being really put off it because there was nothing in the corridor at all, it was just empty space.  There were chairs in the corridor and I said to someone who was showing us round, ‘Oh is that for helping the students doing 1:1 work?’ and she said, ‘Oh no, that’s for the naughty kids’.  It put me off completely.


What about the classrooms?

A classroom’s a classroom, it’s the spaces in between that really make the environment.  And what we’re trying to do now is make the spaces in between, a positive space to be in and also a very easy space.  You shouldn’t need signposts telling you how to get around, it should be really obvious. And that’s really important for inclusion and to help children manage behaviour.


If you had an unlimited budget what would you do that you can’t do now?

An unlimited budget is always a terrifying idea, to be honest (laughs). I think the things that I would spend money on would be creating different scale spaces in a school.  The school designs that I was always inspired by were the Reggio Emilia ones.  I love the things they do there – they have very simple classroom spaces but the design of the furniture, the colours they use, the scale of spaces they have, the opportunities they give children, just having bays with little window seats in … I just think Wow, I’d love my own kids to have that kind of space, that kind of environment and I think that’s what I’d spend money on creating, something that was a bit more complex that offers different experiences for children.

You’ve got no idea what kind of background children come from, what kind of space they’ve got at home, so to give them an environment that is theirs, to their scale, that is tactile and also has the same sort of stuff outside, I think every school should have a real wide diversity of outside space, hard space, soft space, woods, you know, that gives them that diverse experience.  And a little bit of freedom as well.  A connection with the natural world.

I visited Hellerup last year and yes, it is a fantastic building, and it was one of those schools that was held up as the archetypal open plan school during BSF, but the thing that struck me as much as anything was the freedom the kids have because the Danes just have a completely different approach to health and safety.  They’re like ‘huh, accidents happen, they’ll be fine’.  So there’s no reception, the front door is open, kids can go in and out, the playground is open to the street, no fences anywhere and even the youngest ones cook their own lunch. They have candles all through the winter to make it cosy.  They had this lovely teacher who was almost making me cry when she was showing us round because the whole thing was so amazing, she was showing us around and it was the end of the day, there were quite a few kids around because they had after-school clubs and the kids were just climbing and this is an open plan building with massive double-height spaces, double height drops, stairs and the kids were just sliding down the bannisters, there was no ‘Ooh, get down’, they were just free, amazing.

(In England) the teachers, and I don’t blame them, are under so much pressure to produce results.  Ofsted has driven this situation where academic results, the behaviour, they have to be constantly demonstrating that they’re ticking all these boxes, but they can’t afford to give the kids the freedom that other schools or that we used to give them.  I just find it incredible.

When my daughter got a place at her school, it had a satisfactory Ofsted rating and the panic among the parents about going to that school was just phenomenal.  And her cousins went there, I’d visited the school, I knew it, I joined the governing body, it was such a lovely school and I knew that there was nothing absolutely nothing wrong with it at all but the kind of angst and panic that it put parents in and of course it meant that there weren’t enough kids, they’ve had to ‘improve’ so they can get the numbers up and get enough money to run the school, otherwise it goes downhill but it was great for my daughter because she was in reception class with 16 kids!  She had so much attention in reception, it was fantastic.  And now it’s packed, you can’t move.  My son had a completely different experience, jammed into the classroom with 30 kids.  It’s popular, but that’s because they’ve had to focus on ticking the boxes for Ofsted so it’s given a different approach to it.  So that drives everything, really, and it’s very hard for teachers to have the time or the energy to think about anything else.


As an architect, how do you know that the school space that you’ve designed is working well once the children are inside?

We don’t do enough going back and checking and working with people. We are doing that now and we’ve been talking to Jenny Thomas and seeking expertise to help us, so we can understand not just the technical performance stuff but also the emotional response to the space.  A lot of the time it’s quite difficult to make a call on that because a lot of schools that are rebuilt or have a new building have been in really poor environments so for those schools, any building would be better.  I’ve been there when children are being taken around on a tour of the new building for the first time and they’ve been blown away and they can’t believe it’s for them.  And that’s wonderful, especially if you put something in that you’ve worked hard to keep, whether it’s low level windows or little corners, if you see them being drawn to that, it’s like ‘Oh, it worked, it was worth hanging onto that’.  Even having just one space in a classroom that’s slightly different seems to make a huge difference.

With school buildings, you’ve got an opportunity to tell a story a bit more and spark the children’s imagination. And that’s what I worry about with the current school buildings, they’re so basic, you can’t spend any money on anything interesting, an interesting piece of furniture, it’s very basic furniture, a very basic environment.  If you do something above and beyond that the EFA say no, it all has to be absolute parity, so if no-one else has that you can’t do it.  And it’s not their fault, that’s what they’ve been told to deliver. There’s a total one-size fits all approach but it would be nice to feel you could address the social challenges that schools face a bit more and give them something a bit different.

Maybe the thing to do would be to ring-fence a bit of money for each school and say ‘We’ve given you the base-line, we’ve built it so you can spend some money and here are some things you could do with it, what works for you best?’ If you could have that level of conversation it would be really good but you don’t even get that.


Have architects in the UK suffered from the way they’ve been portrayed by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove and if so, how do you counter that?

We’re not very good as architects at representing what we do and what we add.  People still misunderstand our skills a lot. And OK, we have an output at the end and we celebrate the end result, but what we do is a process, we deliver a process that no-one else really knows how to do. And we know how to make that happen. Contractors employ architects all the time as design managers because they know how to make things happen. We’re the ones who pull it together and say ‘that’s how we’ll get it through these milestones. But it’s really hard to communicate that in a succinct way and explain to people what we do. That’s a bit of a problem we’ve got and makes it easier for people like Gove to attack us.

So, for instance, we’re working on three schools at the moment – the brief we’ve been given is for three sites in London to have exactly the same building, exactly the same building, because the government do not want to pay design fees any longer and they say, ‘We don’t see why we should be paying for designers, why can’t every school be exactly the same?’

But of course it doesn’t work like that.  We’ve tried to rise to the challenge and we’ve designed a series of blocks – a hall block and two teaching blocks and a link block and you can put those together in slightly different ways. They’re designed in such a way that you have a buffer side in the teaching block because there’s always something in London that you’re trying to buffer against, whether it’s a road or a railway, and then the teaching accommodation is all on the other side, it’s stacked up on two floors, very rational in terms of the structure and the environmental arrangements but you could put these together so you could put the two teaching blocks next to each other or you could put one on either side of the hall.  Because we’ve built in this link block, it just gives you that bit of flexibility in fitting on a site. And so far, it has worked, so two of the three sites it kind of works on, but every single time there’s always a kind of little bit of change you have to make.  It’s usually dictated by where the entrance to the site is or where the kitchen has to be. There’s always something that dictates (a variation). Very rarely do you get a nice flat open site where you can put in wherever you like.  So we’ve done our best, but because of this drive to keep us out and not pay us anything, that’s what they’re basically working towards, they’re saying that too much money is spent on schools so what can we cut out?  ‘Let’s cut out the design team’. They’re not letting us talk to the schools and they’re making all the decisions. And I worry about because if those schools fail, we’ll be the ones who are blamed.  It will be ‘Well, the architects designed something that didn’t work’.


How would you explain an architect’s role in the context of school design to a layperson?

The headline is that we’re creative problem solvers. We get given a problem that needs a physical outcome and we work that problem out. In school design we try to balance the needs of all of the different stakeholders. Because schools are one of the few sectors where you’ve got a huge number of diverse interests: the children themselves, who often don’t have a voice; the teachers, who often don’t have a voice; the funders, who tend to be local authority or government and they have a strong voice in it; parents; people who live next door to the school; local community – there’s a huge number of people who have a say in that. And that’s what we do as school designers, we try to balance all those different needs and ambitions and again, that’s about problem solving: being clear about what the ambitions are and trying to deliver those and getting through barriers of planning, cost, all those things that we need to try and get through to make the outcome.  But it is difficult. It isn’t just about what it looks like, at all. And often, I’ve spent my entire career doing public consultations and it’s never about the architecture. Most of the time people say, ‘Yeah, it looks alright’, but usually it’s about the principle, the impact of the change that people want to know about not what it looks like.  As an architect I know I only have limited influence over a lot of things but we’re the ones who get the flack if people aren’t happy.


How do you imagine that schools are going to develop in the next fifty years?  Do you think there will even be still be schools in fifty years’ time?

I think there will, because I think there’s always going to be a need for young people to go somewhere and be together as young people and be guided in some way.  And if the working world carries on as it is, if adults need to go to work then children will need somewhere to go. Whether it still takes the same form is very hard to know. It hasn’t changed a lot in the last 100 years, despite all the work that was done in BSF and all the transformational agenda, even in the schools that cost the most and had the most time and effort put into them, they’re not really that different from other schools, they’re still organised with roughly 30 children in a group with a teacher and that’s because the economics are driving it.  I think if anything changes it will be how schools are funded and IT, that’s what will make the change. The information’s there now for kids, they can find it themselves. My kids have no problem finding information they need to at a young age. Rufus has started making his own You Tube videos now at the age of 5. So I think that’s what’s going to change, hopefully young people will get more chance to get a bit more control over it and it will be a bit more interactive as we go forward. Currently the drive is to be more academic and quite strict and I find that quite hard because I think that’s going against what’s happening in the rest of society.

The thing I worry about is that the schools we’re building now are not going to give that long-term flexibility and durability that the schools we were building ten years ago did, just because the budgets are so tight and there’s no flexibility in them. Because most of the time if you have time to talk to teachers and explain what their options are, you get something positive out of it, but that lack of opportunity to do that is really hard.






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