Last year, 11 signature architects were given some homework: each had to design an ideal school to show education planners what they're supposed to look like. Here's what they handed in
The Department for Education and Skills and the local education authorities face an immense problem. Amazingly, it is not a lack of money. The department's capital budget for next year is £5.1bn – more than seven times the budget of 1996/07, including £2.2bn earmarked for rebuilding or renewing secondary schools in 14 local authorities.

No, the problem faced by Britain's education authorities at national and local level is that, over the past 20 years or so, hardly any secondary schools have been built. As a result, expertise in their procurement and design has all but vanished. In any case, the 1970s school, with its dog-eared log tables and slide rules, bears no relation to the high-tech schools of today, with their computer networks and after-hours community services.

So it is back to square one for school design and procurement. Accordingly, the DfES is setting up a national quango in April, Partnership for Schools, which will help LEAs set up local public–private partnerships to procure the schools. As for design, it has resisted the temptation to revert to the ministerial ploy of commissioning templates that local authorities can adopt and adapt. Rather, it has produces a series of model answers that LEA and their architects can use as cribs.

Last week, the department unveiled its 11 ideal designs for secondary and primary schools in a copiously illustrated book called Schools for the Future: Exemplar Designs. The big difference is that the 11 exemplary examples presented in the book are neither basic standardised designs, like those produced for Parker Morris social housing in the 1970s, nor are they inspired designs for real schools. Instead, they are inspired designs for fictitious schools, in which real sites and school clients play only make-believe roles.

The DfES says the exemplars demonstrate its programme's model for 21st-century schools, and the accent is on inspiration in design and aspirations in education, rather than on compliance with official codes, regulations and costs. With this in mind, the architects chosen to envisage Britain's 21-century schools have reputations for brilliant design rather than a solid track record in the education sector. They include Alsop Architects, Wilkinson Eyre Architects and de Rijke Marsh Morgan.

So what, then, can be made of the 11 exemplar designs? Well the first thing to say is that they are hypothetical one-offs; they do not lend themselves to being copied brick-for-brick on real sites. The second is that, although the designs range across a spectrum of forms, styles and construction methods, a few shared principles do emerge.

A favourite theme is the expansion of circulation space: instead of mean school corridors, we have a large atrium or hall that will act as a centre for the school and give pupils and teachers a sense of place.

Another recurring theme is to cluster classrooms dedicated to complementary subjects together to form relatively self-contained "schools within a school".

A third idea, which was encouraged by the DfES, is to make facilities such as libraries and sports halls accessible to the community. And perhaps the strongest theme is adaptability: these buildings can be reorganised to respond to unpredictable yet inevitable shifts in curriculum, teaching methods, demography and community relationships.

The toughest challenge for the architects was probably to reconcile this desire for adaptability with the strict space schedules and cost allowances laid down by the DfES. Richard Feilden, senior partner of Feilden Clegg Bradley, said: "Our first design had a large central atrium that broke the space schedules set out in the department's Building Bulletin 82 because it hadn't allocated enough internal circulation space. We then had to revise our design to comply with the bulletin, and this was very constraining."

So what we have here is stimulus material for the coming generation of secondary schools. The examplars present a wealth of creative design ideas to show LEAs, headmasters and architects what can be done with their budgets. As the schools standards minister, David Miliband, writes in the foreword: "These are not intended to be templates, but to act as springboards for developing imaginative and sustainable school buildings, tailored to local needs and aspirations."

The real trick will be to pick the principles underlying the designs and reinterpret them to suit a particular site and school, as summarised in the following case studies …