An Ideal School-Building Programme

Thinking about some of the differences between school-building programmes in Australia, England and Italy got me wondering – what would you want in an ideal school-building programme?

Here’s a personal wish-list though I’d welcome suggestions. It’s unfinished and I’ll probably return to it – I think there’s much more to be said, especially about how new school buildings get financed. Anyway, as a start, my ideal school-building programme:

  1. might not be a school-building programme. Programmes start and finish. They either have (or are a little like) waves that surge and recede but also crash and things get stranded. Programmes seek to engage publics but then forget them. They are all or nothing. BSF (especially in its Private Finance Initiative version) was big money, big contracts, high risk, high entry costs, huge opportunity costs, legally complex etc etc, non of which favoured small firms.  Perhaps school building could learn something from the slow food movement and apply it to building schools: design quality; building capacity; a forum for developing discussion and education about architecture; sustainability and stability.
  2. would find a way for Post-occupancy Evaluation to improve design and generalists’ knowledge about school architecture. It would involve end-users a) in discussions generally and b) in specific designs. (See note ¹). This would not be collecting voices like a butterfly-catcher collects specimens to exhibit but to build a system and space which has the means to represent one group of people’s knowledge to another and can use and benefit from that knowledge.
  3. would have dedicated funds so that schools and teachers could finish/change the building themselves. I’m thinking here of a more modest version of Alejandro Aravena’s half-built houses (at least how Rowan Moore describes them in Why We Build where residents of a housing estate in Chile had some of the work done for them but also had the opportunity to finish their structures as and when needs arose.) At a recent seminar in Cambridge, Rosie Parnell also discussed the adaptation and reinvention of the Erika Mann Elementary School. These are ways of thinking about architecture not as a product and not as the product of one person (the architect) but as an adapting space produced by a coalition of contributors. If users had some resources to adapt the spaces they work and study in it might make them happier and it could promote teachers’ autonomy and professionalism at a time when these are being challenged, especially in England.
  4. might have architectural competitions to promote discussion. Perhaps this could work its way into a forum, however loosely or tightly imagined. Having a conversation about education, architecture and school design is vital but we currently lack the space to host it. We need to stimulate opportunities – competitions might be one way to promote debate and make more explicit what is meant by ‘quality’. Italy’s current school-building programme is interesting here. Designs for 51 schools are currently being submitted with each practice allowed to submit only once, entries will be scored on a range of criteria and the results released. Presumably smaller firms and practices will have a better chance but from an informational point of view we (might) get to find out more, have a debate and, in short, learn about what architecture can do for education in the 21st century rather than let it happen.
  5. would have political support beyond just the party or parties in government. In short it would be a public commitment to education and architecture that supported (and was supported by) the work of our political representatives across the board so that any programme was less wave-like and more like a pool being filled.

¹See here for a critical exploration of participation in England’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The chapter uses some great data from interviews with architects and teachers involved with new school building projects: Horton, J. and Kraftl, P. (2012) ‘School building redesign: everyday spaces, Transformational policy discourses.’ In Brooks, R., Fuller, A., and Waters, J. (eds) Changing Spaces of Education: New Perspectives on the Nature of Learning. London: Routledge, pp. 114–133.

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Author: Adam Wood

Education researcher - school architecture. Blog: https://architectureandeducation.org

4 thoughts on “An Ideal School-Building Programme”

  1. Some really sensible ideas, thanks, Adam.

    Although I share your doubts about ‘programmes’, I take some comfort from the hope of continuity through the growing wisdom and expertise of the people who have been involved – somehow this feeds into subsequent developments as people go on to be involved in later ‘programmes’ (though of course it would be good to by put structures in place to encourage this). I certainly saw evidence of that building of experience and knowledge at the Cambridge meeting.

    Point 5 is a really good one: it’s crazy how designing and building schools has become a political confrontation of Building Schools for the Future versus the Priority School Building Programme. Not helpful at all.

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  2. I think point 2 is well made and identifies an issue that is particularly pressing.

    There is a clear absence of attempts at POE that are ground in human experience within the context. Any such tools are conceptually difficult but critical to the narrative of both architecture and education. This is where education can step more meaningfully into the dialogue and help shape the tools, design, and ongoing political dimension (budget/community/pedagogical/humanist imperatives).

    A recent book by Imms et al here in Australia has nudged this space. I have my own plans there too 🙂

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  3. Great, thanks Scott – I will seek out Imms et al and look forward to hearing more about your own project too!

    Agree completely with your comment – such a waste that all that experience of building and using schools just disappears into the ether… Forgot to add a link to an interview I did last year with Adrian Leaman, now done that, but it might be of interest: https://architectureandeducation.org/2016/02/19/post-occupancy-evaluation-and-schools-an-interview-with-adrian-leaman/

    Pam Woolner brought out a book in 2015 that’s a great way forward in terms of all of the above, might be worth looking up if you don’t already have it. Also has a chapter on PoE by Adrian Leaman and Roderic Bunn but to be honest the whole book is excellent. https://www.routledge.com/School-Design-Together/Woolner/p/book/9780415840767

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  4. Beaut, thanks Adam.
    Yep, I have Pam Woolner’s book; actually I used several chapters in my PhD submission. I also have Neil Gislasin’s book Building Innovation – he has a chapter in Design Together too. His ecological model is pretty interesting (I think it’s from 2011 but I’d have to check that back at the office).

    Looking forward to the interview, thanks 🙂

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