Architects can help schools understand how to really use engagement sessions to their advantage

Caroline Buckingham

Appropriate engagement with schools is the only way to deliver the best projects that meet the expectations of teachers and pupils, as well as enhance design quality. I’m sure nobody would dispute this; however while discussing engagement with a teacher I know well, she made a point I hadn’t before considered - engagement and collaboration were not discussed when she trained as a teacher.

Coming from an architectural training background, where everything is pinned up, presented to peers and professors, discussed, defended, torn apart and hopefully reconstructed, it becomes second nature for us to debate and engage with others. It appears however, that the same can’t be assumed for teachers in training.

So when we talk about “stakeholder sessions” during the design stages, teachers, pupils and other staff working in schools may have no idea who, how, why and what is required in these meetings.  

When we show 3D visuals, sketches and images to explain the design of the learning environment we often find that schools expect to be directed to the solution, not enter into a debate on options. They will have an educational vision, but may not know how the process will drive the project team to it. 

We often find that schools expect to be directed to the solution, not enter into a debate on options

From my experience, it is through building up trust and understanding that we help realise a school’s vision. Time, however, is a luxury that we sadly don’t have these days; but we must invest whatever time we can.

One of my favourite projects over recent years is Brannel Performing Arts School in Cornwall. This project was procured in competition through a local framework where I was interviewed by the local authority, school and the contractor together. An architect’s nightmare… who is the client?

From the offset though, this approach set the scene; collaboration was going to be fundamental to the success of this project. Every detail for the design of the new school was discussed, understood and agreed by the project’s ‘stakeholders’. In order to achieve this, we held project launch days; we marked out toilet configurations and locker formations; and had in depth discussions with pupils and teachers about their wants and needs. 

The result is a school we are all immensely proud of. This was not only an enjoyable project to work on, but it also allowed everyone to gain a real understanding of each other’s drivers and needs. This is on top of delivering a school on time and to budget.

So what do we learn from this? We learn that architects can be the master builder; they can listen, interpret, and understand all parties’ requirements and goals. Working on this project did make me wonder if this skill should and could now be exported beyond the construction profession to the educators themselves.

I’d be happy to do a workshop on collaboration and engagement, imparting the experience from our construction world to teachers on their training course. It’s all about people and relationships after all and can only benefit the school, teachers and crucially the students themselves. Any offers?

Caroline Buckingham is board director and head of education for HLM Architects