After years of penny-pinching neglect, Britain’s squalid schools are being completely re-evaluated – and this time, design is at the top of the agenda.

The following questions will not be appearing on this year’s curriculum: Is education out of touch with society? Does bad design in schools cause low attainment and disruptive behaviour? And what exactly is a school supposed to do, anyway?

But as millions of children prepare to return to school next week, these are questions that demand answers. There is a growing realisation that dragging Britain’s squalid schools into the 21st century is going to require some brave thinking.

“For 20 years, there was no capital going into schools,” says Helen Smith, education research officer at the University of London. “Secondary schools have had it particularly rough. They are the most depressing environments.” The government’s £4bn New Deal for Schools is clearing much of the backlog of essential maintenance but, as Smith says, “after you’ve dealt with things like leaking roofs and outside toilets, you can actually start thinking about the building itself”.

Among those asking fundamental questions of schools is London’s Architecture Foundation. The foundation, a charity dedicated to raising awareness of the built environment, started its School Works project by picking a failing inner-city comprehensive – the post-war Kingsdale Secondary School in Southwark – and analysing every aspect of how it functions. “We set up a process that really questioned the purpose of schools,” says Hilary Cottam, director of School Works. “Why do they only open from eight till three, for example?”

School Works has the backing of the Department for Education and Employment, which is using it as a policy test-bed. If successful, the Architecture Foundation hopes the consultation it carried out can be used as a template for any school project nationwide. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring London borough of Lambeth, a similar rethink of schools provision has resulted in a controversial plan for four new schools.

For the Southwark consultation, Cottam led a multidisciplinary team including architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan, Megan Maclaurin of engineer Tekniker and construction manager John Goulden of Mace. Together with an educational psychologist, a policy analyst and several artists, they held workshops with pupils, staff and parents at Kingsdale Secondary School.

The results are striking. “What we’ve seen is there is a clear relationship between design and learning,” says Cottam. For example, the team found that narrow corridors were encouraging aggression. “If you ring a bell and send 1000 children down a narrow corridor they start beating each other up,” says Cottam. “It leads to bullying behaviour and pupils arrive at lessons in a state that isn’t conducive to learning.”

The lack of personal space such as lockers left pupils feeling no sense of ownership of the school, and meant they had to lug heavy bags around all day. This led to an increase in theft, which in turn caused pupils to leave their bags and books at home.

Cell-like classrooms that could not be monitored from outside were encouraging misbehaviour, while the smell in the boys’ toilets was so bad that pupils bunked off rather than use them. Other problems were more trivial. “One of the biggest complaints was the quality of the loo paper,” says Cottam.

Once the design problems were established, the next stage of the project was to propose solutions. De Rijke Marsh Morgan has proposed roofing over the school’s underused central courtyard to create new circulation routes, replacing the narrow corridors. It suggests creating a sense of community by restoring personal lockers and instigating a “house” system to form a series of mini-communities within the school.

Glass walls between classrooms and circulation routes will increase passive surveillance. Staff will be given high-quality spaces that reflect their professional status, rather than the tatty staffroom of old. A stylish new café, with outdoor seating for the summer, will replace the existing canteen. “Lunch is the cause of a lot of misbehaviour because the facilities are inadequate,” says partner Alex de Rijke.

The practice has proposed turning the school, which sits at the centre of a relatively prosperous part of south London, into a hub for the entire community. Facilities such as the library, the music studio and the sports hall – as well as the classrooms themselves – go unused when the school is closed.

“The relationship between the community and the school is fundamental to its future,” says de Rijke. “As it stands, the community doesn’t use it and it’s a major local urban facility.”

De Rijke believes that schools, which are based on rigid hierarchical structures, need to change to reflect the way society has evolved. “Having a teacher at the front of a class is a 19th-century idea. People are becoming less able to relate to that. What’s emerging is a learning environment that is much more flexible, based on mentoring and learning from peer groups.

We’re trying to get a holistic view of learning, instead of an old-fashioned view of teaching.” The demands of IT also influence the proposals. “Schools today are modelled on a collection of cellular spaces that depend on subject matter, teachers and class sizes,” says de Rijke. “The Internet breaks down these barriers. Just as a laptop can turn your bedroom into a workspace, so it will change a playground into a home economics lesson.” At the moment, however, the design of schools mitigates against full exploitation of technology. “For example, why can’t you work on a computer in the library?” asks de Rijke. “You have to go to the computer room.”

It was not only in Southwark that design quality, community access and IT provision were identified as crucial to the future of schools; Lambeth council reached similar conclusions and consequently came up with a radical plan to overhaul its education facilities.

The Primary School Development Strategy involves closing down 10 schools and selling the land to help fund four new ones at a total cost of £16m. This avoids the cumbersome and less design-friendly private finance initiative route. Innovative architects have been appointed to each school and the council has employed leading school architect Sir Colin Stansfield Smith as a mentor for the strategy.

The ambitious plan aims to transform primary education in Lambeth in one push, with all four schools set for completion in September 2002. “In 1998, Lambeth had a very bad reputation for school provision,” says project co-ordinator Mark Grimley. “Following the local elections, the new council decided to change that. We’re closing down schools that were expensive to maintain and building new ones that meet the demands of education for the 21st century. They’ll have more of a community element. They won’t just be schools you have from nine to four on schooldays.”

“It’s quite extraordinary, what they’re doing,” says Gillian Horn of architect Penoyre & Prasad, one of the four practices involved. “They acknowledge and try to promote the importance of design.”

Horn is project architect on the £2.5m refurbishment and extension of New North Lambeth School (below). The project involves altering the original Victorian building to accommodate 14 new classrooms, all with data cabling for state-of-the-art digital “whiteboards” that allow teachers to print, save and edit their lessons. They are also building a striking new multipurpose hall that will be open to the community even when the school is closed. The leaf-shaped hall is raised on stilts to preserve precious playground space beneath.

Horn says that, although local people are up in arms about the school closures, they have responded positively to the practice’s proposals. “Nobody’s been against the building; nobody’s attacked the architecture,” she says, adding: “Schools can educate people about the environment. That’s the interesting challenge, to make stimulating spaces that can inspire people.”

Paul Monaghan of architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris agrees. “For years, so many councils stopped good designers getting schools by putting bureaucracy in the way,” he says. His practice is designing Tulse Hill Primary School in Lambeth. “When others see what Lambeth is doing, I hope they’ll do it themselves.”

The DFEE has already put its new ideas into action. It wrote the brief for the £8m Greenwich Peninsula School next to the London Millennium Village (page 41), which is set to become a showpiece of sustainable urban design when it is completed in November.

The multifunctional cluster of buildings, designed by Edward Cullinan Architects, will form the heart of the new community on the peninsula, containing an early years centre, primary school, health centre and “village hall”. It will offer integrated learning, leisure and health services to people of all ages. Its classrooms will be stuffed full of technology to prepare children for the digital age. The high-quality, environment-friendly building should engender an understanding of architecture and the built environment.

The DFEE is cautious about trumpeting the school before it has had a chance to monitor its performance, but it is in no doubt about the magnitude of what needs to be done. “There’s a transformation going on in the way we approach schools,” says Robin Bishop, principal architect at the DFEE. “We are talking about a gradual breaking down of the narrow definition of what constitutes education.”