Ryder HKS’s Darlington Education Village brings together the least able children, including those with severe behavioural difficulties, and the most academic – an architectural and curatorial challenge that has been met with verve. Not bad for a PFI project
Darlington Education Village is quite simply England’s first truly comprehensive school. Comprehensive in the sense that it brings together nursery, primary and secondary pupils and, more to the point, children with special educational needs. And we’re not just talking about children with minor learning difficulties here, but the whole spectrum of learning difficulties, including those with severe emotional and behavioural problems. In fact the school includes 225 SEN pupils, making up 22% of the school population.
“We wanted to create a community for all children between the ages of four and 19,” explains the school’s charismatic executive director, Dame Dela Smith. “It would have to be able to accommodate the least able and the most talented.”
Not surprisingly the £37m school has created waves in the education world – and at top political level, too. It was officially opened in July by prime minister Tony Blair, along with schools minister Alan Milburn, in whose constituency it lies. It has been visited and held up as a model by the MPs’ select committee on education and skills. And it was praised by the children’s commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green as “inspirational in every sense and dimension”.
Bringing all these diverse schools together offers benefits and challenges. Facilities and staff can be pooled, which frees teachers from bureaucratic chores and enables other specialist staff to cover such pastoral roles as “inclusion co-ordination”, pupil engagement and community relations. The most obvious challenge was how to fit the whole gamut of special educational, physical, mental and emotional needs into mainstream education. This is complicated by the school’s size:
being a merger of three existing schools, the new school has 1400 pupils on its roll and a floor area of 16,500 m2, a size and mix that could be threatening to the SEN pupils and toddlers entering nursery school. To complicate things further, the school was procured by PFI, which has a dismal record of exploring new educational directions. The PFI provider in this case is Kajima, with Ryder HKS as its architect.
The solution arrived at in Darlington is there in the name – it’s a village. Not, it should be said, “village” in the grotesquely deformed sense used to sugarcoat a commercial shopping centre, nor as a kind of Disneyland heritage set. “It really is like a village,” says Smith, “where some people go to church, some go to the pub, and some play cricket on the green.” Or as Ian Kennedy, Ryder HKS’ director, puts it (with less poetic licence): “We didn’t just bring the three schools together and let them get on with it, or they would always have been knocking into each other. We wanted the three to operate independently if they wanted to. The idea is that everybody should feel part of something, but they don’t need to feel part of all of it.”
In architectural terms, this meant giving each department a distinct block and stringing them together along an internal street. The trouble was that, with so many sizable departments, a straight string of blocks would stretch over 240 m in length. So after long discussions with staff, Kennedy looped the string of blocks back on itself to create a complete circle or necklace.
The necklace configuration neatly brings departments close together without congestion. As a bonus, it encircles and overlooks a large self-contained garden, predictably named the village green, that is freely accessible to the whole school community. What’s more, the large assembly hall juts into the garden and is faced on the outside by a continuous screen of glazed doors that can be completely folded away to either side. With the doors open, the internal space and the performances taking place in it can spill out into the open air.
The together-but-separate theme is well illustrated by the two single-storey primary school wings. They are physically plugged into the whole interconnected complex, but instead of forming two links in the necklace, they hang from it like a pair of pendants. Each of these wings comes with its own entrance at the far end and fenced-off playgrounds outside each classroom. Each is connected to the main internal street by a wedge-shaped buffer zone that serves either as the primary-school dining hall, or, when the dining tables with seats attached are wheeled away, as a flexible space available to the whole school. This arrangement removes toddlers from the melee of the main school, and Smith reports that even when they venture onto the main street they say: “It’s not hard to find our way around, so we don’t get lost.”
The external forms are just simple rectangular boxes, with plain flush walls and double-pitched roofs over the teaching blocks. They are, however, neatly detailed and spiced up by splashes of vivid colour and oversized portholes
The inclusion of SEN children and their facilities is more complex, given the wide range of type and severity of their needs. The Department for Education and Skills used to aspire to the egalitarian policy of fully integrating SEN children into mainstream schools. This has been dropped because it does not cater for children with severe needs. Instead, the DfES has adopted a policy of “a flexible continuum of provision”, and Darlington Education Village conforms to this by offering a range of approaches, from full inclusion to selective separation.
At the inclusive end of the spectrum, SEN pupils are given the run of the whole school so that they can be educated alongside their mainstream peers. Rather than being an architectural constraint, this turns out to offer significant enhancements of all. Wheelchair access has boosted classroom size by some 25%. State-of-the-art fittings, furniture and equipment have been procured for all the school departments through SEN’s generous budget. And classrooms on the ground floor are flooded in daylight, as floor-to-ceiling glazing is required for special needs children, many of whom feel happier sitting on the floor rather than at desks.
Among the special facilities for SEN pupils is a therapy pool. As it is located next to a conventional 25 m pool, mainstream and special needs children can take swimming sessions together.
Added to that, special needs teenagers have their own dedicated bases that occupy the ground floors of two teaching wings in the necklace. Being open-plan in layout and incorporating areas for teaching, socialising and dining, these bases are light, airy, relaxed and non-institutional. At the severe end of the spectrum, a handful of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties have been given a self-contained single-storey wing. It is the only free-standing wing in the whole complex, yet it lies only a few steps beyond the main necklace.
Looking at the architecture of the whole village complex, it comes across as refreshingly bright, colourful, open and spacious. It is the antithesis of dreary run-of-the-mill PFI schools, where the first things to be value-engineered out of existence are glazing and daylight. To this end, Ryder has been crafty in focusing the limited building budget on key elements that have maximum architectural effect.
Take the external building forms. Far from being elaborate, arresting architectural shapes, these are just simple rectangular boxes, with plain flush walls and double-pitched roofs over the teaching blocks. They are, however, neatly detailed and spiced up by buttresses of polished charcoal-grey blockwork around the perimeter, and by oversized porthole windows elsewhere. But the special ingredient here is one of the cheapest in the architectural palette – colour.
Several vivid colours have been splashed about to exhilarating effect. Visitors are given a cheery welcome by a two-storey box in canary yellow that juts forward from one side of the main entrance. Another wing containing the sports hall and two swimming pools is particularly bulky and windowless, but restrained from looking bleak by being coloured midnight blue all over. And within the village green, the assembly hall and dance studio wing jut out and are coloured orange and crimson respectively. As well as providing a bright backdrop to the village green, these two wings serve as unmistakable reference points by which people can orientate themselves.
Walking into the building is like entering an upmarket business park building. You find yourself in a spacious, lofty hall awash with daylight streaming in through clear-glazed window walls on two sides. Beyond the reception desk, the hall is laid out in a collection of circular tables and chairs, as it serves as the school’s main dining hall.
Special needs pupils are given the run of the school so they can be educated alongside their mainstream peers. Rather than being an architectural constraint, this offers significant enhancements for all
In fact, the dining hall is no more than a widening of the main internal street that links the school’s communal facilities including learning resource centre, assembly hall, indoor sports complex and school office. The street is a wide double-decker thoroughfare that extends the double-height space and full-height window wall of the dining hall all along one side. “We were able to create the main street because we sucked floor space out of the area designated in the brief for dining,” explains Kennedy.
Walking down the double-decker street is a delight. Spacious, airy and brightly lit, it offers views into the village green and the colourful assembly hall and dance studio wing along one side. The endless monotonous vista of a long straight corridor has been neatly eliminated by a couple of slight kinks along its 120 m length.
“There are no dark, lurky corners, so it’s not threatening at all,” comments Smith, referring to the conventional corridors favoured by school bullies.
Admittedly, the internal street splits into two separate floors where it passes through the four teaching wings in the necklace.
But these are short straight stretches of corridor that are overlooked through large internal windows from classrooms on either side.
Most of the classrooms also gain plenty of daylight as a natural stimulant to learning. On the ground floor, daylight is admitted through floor-to-ceiling glazing. As for the two primary school wings and the deeper science laboratories above the communal spaces, these come with spacious overhead voids beneath monopitch roofs and clerestory windows.
The most inspiring educational space is the learning resource centre in the yellow wing jutting out at the front. Like the adjoining dining hall, this is a double-height space with full-height window wall, and it comes with an elliptical island at mezzanine level.
Since it opened in April, the school has proved a success with both mainstream and SEN pupils, according to Smith. “We thought the autistic children would take a long time to come to terms with it,” she says. “But after just two induction sessions, they adore it. And in the first week of the new session, scores of mainstream pupils offered to work as mentors to the SEN children.
They love the interaction and the inclusion of being all together.”
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