Is standardising design the way forward for schools? Yes, says Philip Watson, but only if ‘standardisation’ means ‘best practice’ and we consider the individual needs of the school

Philip Watson

In its consultation document response to the James Review, the education department has broadly accepted the recommendations on standardised designs and specifications for schools. It states that it intends to procure these designs immediately. But what exactly will it procure and will it prove to be money well spent?

The consultation document states that the education department “is not aiming for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution”, which should calm those who feared the prospect of “Identikit” secondary schools being built throughout England. I have championed the benefits of off-site construction and so I am keen to understand how these standardised designs will “reflect local conditions and needs”- as I believe they should.

Completely bespoke school design is unsustainable in the current economic climate. But as a design community we should be welcoming an evolving best practice in order to achieve the best outcomes for users (pupils, staff and the community) rather than starting from scratch with every new project. Every school has classrooms, usually making up 60% of the total accommodation - so we must have enough collective knowledge to be able to define what best practice design looks like. While there are many examples of excellent new school designs delivered through BSF that are helping to improve learning outcomes, sadly there have been too many schools designed with architecture rather than learning in mind (not that these are mutually exclusive). So the education department should give measurable benefits for building users by defining the functional requirements and environmental performance of schools, rather than designing whole secondary school templates for the private sector to replicate.

There is no doubt in my mind that school design guidance and legislation is complex, and in part contradictory, and this may have contributed to the poor environmental conditions found in some schools.

Sebastian James says schools should be “fit for purpose”. This is undeniable, but what does “fit for purpose” actually mean? For me, it means quite a lot: schools need to be welcoming and warm. Spaces need to be large enough and arranged to support learning activities. They need to have plenty of daylight but not suffer from excessive glare or overheating. There has to be abundant fresh air without it being draughty. The acoustics need to be appropriate for different activities. Furniture should be comfortable and easy to manoeuvre. There should be ample access to power and data to allow spaces to be used in different ways. Building services need to be located so that future adaptation isn’t too expensive or disruptive. Materials and fittings need to be long lasting and easy to maintain. The environmental performance of the building needs to reduce carbon production and reduce whole life costs. These are the minimum requirements for schools and are all aspects that can be specified, measured, defined …”standardised”.

In the past standardisation in school design meant that buildings were designed around a construction methodology. What we need now is to standardise a school’s environmental performance to ensure that the experience of building users is the key driver. By creating common, sensible environmental standards and room layouts a best practice approach to school design could be defined that would allow schools to work with designers and contractors to create excellent learning environments without being over-restricting.

So, instead of spending money procuring standardised designs for complete secondary schools, the education department could allow the private sector to develop cost-effective solutions based on a simplified set of environmental design criteria, space standards and layouts. And the money saved in doing this? It might pay to build a new primary school …

Philip Watson is design director and head of education at Atkins

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