An in-depth study of postwar school designs has provided some valuable insights for new developments, writes Danny Harris of Stride Treglown
The spaces that we create are not mere structures; they serve as the foundations of our society’s future.
Architects play a pivotal role in shaping the quality of the spaces where we work, live and play. In educational spaces, they influence how our communities grow and learn. In the wake of the RAAC crisis, which has exposed the dangers of using cheap construction materials, it is imperative that we re-evaluate our approach to school design.
Our ability to build a better future begins with a rigorous examination of our past. Last year, Stride Treglown embarked on a comprehensive evaluation study of five postwar schools that were hailed as exemplars when they first featured in the government’s schools guidance, “Building Bulletins”, over half a century ago.
These Building Bulletins, offering non-statutory guidance on the design and specification of publicly funded school buildings, have long served as a valuable resource for British architects.
The schools spanned a period from the early 1950s to the late 1970s – a time of profound change in the sector, leading up to the introduction of the national curriculum in 1989. The aim was to delve into historical education policies, explore the schools and their archives, and engage with current school leaders to understand how these designs have stood the test of time and what contemporary architects and developers can glean from them.
Natural materials such as timber parquet flooring proved remarkably durable, some still performing perfectly decades later
Extensive data and surveys were analysed to benchmark quality in school design – with “quality” being the fundamental word. Many of the findings offered valuable lessons for contemporary practice, emphasising the importance of functionality, integration, appropriate sizing and the use of robust materials. It was notable that natural materials such as timber parquet flooring proved remarkably durable, some still performing perfectly decades later.
The original educational emphasis on the connection to nature was also substantiated by the findings – schools with an overt connection to outdoor spaces and nature promoted the wellbeing of both staff and students. An excellent example at one of the schools was where courtyards designed for educational purposes remain in use today, fostering a positive and active learning environment.
Unexpected findings also emerged, however. Three of the schools we examined had no internal corridors, encouraging outdoors movement between classrooms, a design feature that did not deter students and may have provided beneficial breaks and fresh air throughout the school day. In addition, the presence of alcoves and nooks within classroom layouts appeared to enhance inclusivity.
Another example was cross-shaped room plans which created zones that allowed staff to provide extra help for students without segregating them from the rest of the class.
Finally, we found that a school’s fundamental typology affected its freedom to adapt to changing requirements after completion. Where rooms were positioned either side of a corridor, in a “finger-block” typology, they were easier to flexibly extend and alter in the future.
This was in contrast to rooms clustered around large central halls and atria spaces, in a “superblock” typology, where the relatively deep plan traps the building in an inflexible arrangement that makes it harder to change internal layouts.
The decision to reduce funding for repairs, despite evidence of structural concerns, challenges our commitment to safety and quality in educational spaces
The lessons of robustness, connection to the outdoors, corridor design, inclusivity through alcoves and the flexibility of finger blocks not only offer valuable insights but help to address the vulnerabilities exposed by RAAC construction. However, as we reflect on these lessons, it is disheartening to note the recent budget cuts for school repairs.
The issues over RAAC construction that have emerged this summer follow a long period of financial short-termism. The revelation from Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE), that Rishi Sunak cut the government budget for school repairs by half when he was chancellor in 2021 – resulting in only 50 schools being refurbished annually instead of the originally planned 100 – is deeply concerning.
The decision to reduce funding for repairs, despite evidence of structural concerns, challenges our commitment to safety and quality in educational spaces. Cutting back on building investment is an a largely unseen economy but a completely unsustainable one.
We urge bolder, more ambitious investment in a new retrofit and adaptive re-use programme, to replace the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF). A programme with adaptive reuse at its core will refocus value generation towards improving the embodied carbon of existing school estates, reviving underused, poor-performing assets and demanding a creative approach from the outset.
We should be retrofitting to high energy standards such as EnerPHit. Regulatory reforms are also essential. Regulations must mandate the use of longer lasting and robust materials, responsive to local contexts and adhering to higher quality design codes. This approach allows for greater flexibility and encourages buildings with personality, positioning architecture as more than mere functionality.
The government has a pivotal role to play. Education spending should return to levels seen in 2009/10, allowing architects, developers and contractors to create high-quality school environments on a par with international standards. Additionally, the government must continue its drive towards net zero emissions, pushing ambitions around embodied carbon.
Sunak’s recent watering down of net zero policies has cast a shadow over the UK’s commitment to environmental sustainability, however, undermining the policy of sustainable design already being adopted by the DfE and increasing the risks associated with crises such as the RAAC issue.
Lessons drawn from these experiences offer a beacon of hope in the wake of the RAAC crisis. By applying these insights, we can ensure that the buildings we design today not only stand the test of time but also safeguard the future of the communities they serve.
It is our collective responsibility, as architects and as a society, to learn from the past and shape a better, safer and more sustainable world.
Danny Harris is head of schools and colleges at Stride Treglown