Another brick in the wall

 Good architecture and education. Can design help better education?

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Westminster Academy © Tim Soar

"We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won't be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no-one in this room is here to make architects richer." The Secretary of State for Education may not be a fan of architects, but the people who matter – teachers and students – tend to be.

Why? Because architecture can make a real difference to how we learn, how we teach, and what we achieve at school. Take Westminster Academy in central London. With a vibe that's more 'Apple Mac' than 'apple for the teacher', the building is designed to encourage children to think of themselves not as just students, but as the business leaders of the future, in control of what their careers will bring.  

Designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, it strikes the perfect balance between cutting-edge design and functionality. The staircase in its atrium is impressive, but its design also leaves no place to hide for students up-to-no-good.  The open-plan locker space is attractive, and has also virtually eradicated theft. The toilets are designed with ‘escape routes’ to deter school bullies, but they're also hardwearing and built to last.

Westminster© Ed Clark

Classroom design complements the latest teaching techniques, where rote learning experienced from the same seat every day has been replaced with exploration and learning tailored to the child. Gone is the assembly hall of the past. Instead there's a lecture theatre, a series of breakout rooms and a multi-purpose "board room".

And then there's the colours. A loud and proud addition to its local built environment, the drab greys and browns of a typical UK school have been replaced by lively yellows and greens both inside and outside the school. Many motorists have commented on how the school's walls add a sudden burst of colour to the journeys of commuters on the adjacent A40.

EvelynGrace(c)ChrisHayesEvelyn Grace Academy © Chris Hayes

More striking still is Zaha Hadid's RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Evelyn Grace Academy. Making the school’s specialist subject status a central theme of its structure, a racing track weaves through this sports academy. And the 'schools within schools' approach that is a central theme of many academies is supported by architecture that enables parts of the building to merge and split as required.

MonkseatonExternalLandscape(c)LightwaveStudios530x339Monkseaton High School © Lightwave Studios

Over in Whitley Bay in North Tyneside, there's Monkseaton High School by Devereux architects. Looking more like the HQ of a multinational company than a high school, it has an open-plan interior, meaning you can easily see from one side of the school to the other, making it easier for teachers to be able to see what is going on at all times and crack down on bullying and bad behaviour. To help students with additional needs, the school now has a physiotherapy room, and fire alarm sounders with flashing lights for those with a hearing impediment. Sustainability is an important part of the building’s design, with crucial features including energy efficient lighting, integrated natural ventilation and thermal solar power.

 

Jesmond Gardens Primary School © Andrew Heptinstall

For younger learners, there’s Hartlepools’s Jesmond Gardens Primary School, designed by ADP Architects. Another example of a school built to suit how we learn (not how we think we should learn), the school suits the idea of 'transformational' education', in which it’s a child's age, rather than stage that is important. So children aren’t organised in classes according to whether they're 5, 7 or 11 but can work in one communal space.

There are 'learning bases' for each national curriculum key stage, which are fitted with acoustic curtains for when a more traditional 'closed' classroom is required. And as well as being a school that pupils can be proud of, teaching staff have reported an increased rate of progress across all year groups, and a decline in poor behaviour, which oddly enough, are two things Michael Gove wants to happen at all schools.  

 

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