It’s ironic that this government is pushing for standardised designs for most schools but has a liberal approach when it comes to academies and free schools

Richard Hyams

There are now many ways of delivering schools, from the Priority School Building Programme and PF2, to academies and free schools. The construction industry’s role in each varies wildly, from legislation and regulation dictating design and layout, on the one hand, to total freedom, on the other.

The most liberal approach to design and construction comes with the aptly named free schools. Here, we can truly embrace the educational vision and seek to represent it through both design and function. Each free school has the rare opportunity to be bespoke, unique, tailored, inspiring and different - all the things that make learning a rich experience.

We’re delivering our first free school with The Leadbitter Group, School21 in Stratford, due for completion soon. We’ve embraced the freedom afforded here and rooted the design in the educational needs of the 1,200 students. We’ve re-used buildings, extended and remodelled to take them on a journey through different “schools” and experiences, from “exploration” to “achievement”.

While it may be understandable in a cash-strapped world, dismissing design, or at best misunderstanding the value of it, means schools lose their individuality

Free schools, like academies, can harness the power of design to help deliver alternative and better educational outcomes. There has been much debate about the value of architecture in education and education secretary Michael Gove has more than once hit the headlines with a position less focused on design and heavily focused on standardisation and efficiency. This position goes back to Victorian principles and traditional classrooms and while it may be understandable in a cash-strapped world, dismissing design, or at best misunderstanding the value of it, means schools lose their individuality. Worse still they risk losing the ability to adapt, and the opportunity to choose a learning environment that inspires, challenges and develops the thinking and behaviour of future generations.

It is ironic that the government that is funding standardised buildings, where the end user is “advised” of their school design, is also the one encouraging free schools, where the end user has ultimate veto on the design. Is this one great big social experiment?

I firmly believe that buildings change behaviour, if they’re given the chance. And I can prove it. St Paul’s Way Trust School in Bow opened in early 2011 and was rebuilt as part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in Tower Hamlets.

Funded predominately by the council, the £36m project was led and managed by the council, built by Bouygues UK and designed by us in conjunction with the students, staff and wider community. Having been placed in special measures the school was given a new head teacher with a vision to spearhead change.

The BSF programme encouraged dialogue with the staff and students - something we’ve lost too much now. The new school design was not about the fabric; it was about education and capturing the head teacher’s vision through the architecture. Crucially, it also engages confidently with the community it serves and the facilities have made a huge impact locally

There is no doubt in my mind that this school benefitted from a liberal approach to design. It is uplifting and inspiring and showcases some of the best learning facilities
in the country. Corridor-free spaces and expandable classrooms encourage a variety of teaching styles to flourish.

And the proof? The school was named one of the country’s 50 most improved schools in 2011 with student attendance levels significantly improved, and attainment at GCSE level above the national average. This year Ofsted rated it “outstanding”. Notably, on the front page of the report, was a reference to the new building: “Students’ behaviour is outstanding. They overwhelmingly agree that the new building gives them a very safe and inspiring environment in which to learn”. So maybe the building, design and layout do matter, after all.

Remember all the work undertaken by Cabe’s school design review panel? Why are we not using the wealth of experience and analysis of every possible school? Would our school building programme look like it does today if we’d learnt those lessons?

The sole objective of every school must be enhanced educational outcome - so let’s see which schools will do well and achieve the best results. And let’s not forget the lessons learnt across all procurement methods - past and present, and let’s try not to create so many uninspiring buildings that we have to do it all again in 10-15 years’ time.

Richard Hyams is a director of Astudio