I was asked to do a keynote speech on “an outsiders view of the Building Schools For The Future programme ” at an annual conference British Schools and Education conference in Manchester in Feb 08.
When I googled Building Schools for the Future I was quite inspired by the words on the governments website…“Working together to create world-class, 21st-century schools – environments which will inspire learning for decades to come and provide exceptional assets for the whole community”. As a father of four what I have craved for from school is happy, bright, questioning and healthy young people taught by happy, bright, kind and questioning teachers. Whilst these words aren’t part of the BSF mission statement, I like the concepts “inspire learning” and “community”. Maybe the £64 billion that is earmarked to be spent on the future schools programme would be a much needed wonderful investment.
What I struggled to find was role models , examples of schools that had been built, all I came across on the internet was so called “iconic” architectural impressions of glass blobs.
So I went on a little tour of new schools. My experience is best summed up by a visit to Lillian Bayliss secondary school overlooking the Oval in London. On entering it has the typical steel fret cut name, and the large atrium but dig a bit deeper and you’ll still find the toilets with breeze block walls, haven’t builders and architects realised that men splash when they wee and that breeze block absorbs liquids and smells, it made me think of my daughters coming home from school desperate for the toilet complaining the school loos were “ rank”. Do we want iconic atriums or do we want attention to detail and the kind of comfort & cleanliness that most get at home? Do we want new shiny or do we want the simple things, the basics of life to be in order.
There’s no doubt that a new building and good architecture can make people feel better but even good design can lose its lustre, especially with young inquisitive minds. Successful retailers know this. Even in the late 90’s when we sold our brand Red or Dead, we were moving to new collections in store every 8 weeks, now retailers like Top Shop aim to refresh every four to six weeks, will the excitement of that shiny new atrium and glass fronted school when they are confronted by a day and a curriculum that doesn’t inspire.
Young people, like most of us adults want Community, Family, Money, guidance and “things to do” isn’t the key to design these elements into school? How much should be about shiny new buildings and how much should be about process?
The phenomenal uptake of My Space, Facebook, Bebo, MSN prove that the concept of community is thriving with young people. Theres a clue here, we must be building schools that are community friendly, with plenty of meeting spaces, fewer narrow corridors. We should be going further (and we are at a development HemingwayDesign are working on www.thebridgedartford.co.uk and ensuring that schools become the community hub, a place where the whole community goes for leisure, health, and education.
But cant old schools provide much of this? At Woolmer Hill School in Haslemere a school which I have developed a relationship with, the community are rallying round, (one dads a builder) to add wonderful new facilities to what many would consider to be infrastructure that is well past its sell by, but the “community spirit” that flows through the school is because the community is involved. Shouldn’t they be able to get match funding from a central BSF pot?
One of the things I often here is there is a rush to commit budgets, but nothing is proved yet by the BSF new schools programme can’t we be more thrifty whilst this process is being tested? I know there is the fear that the moneys there now & “before its withdrawn lets spend it”, but there is a great danger in that.
Back to money and “things to do”. Can’t we start to make our schools more entrepreneurial and to invest in up to date teaching in fast paced subjects that have been classed as “non academic”? My eldest son was taught by a Design & Technology teacher who had completely lost touch with the outside design world, that’s pretty understandable but my son suffered. Couldn’t we be investing in schools providing workspaces for those hard pressed creatives who struggle to find affordable spaces, giving them studios in return for teaching & working with students on real life projects. The recognised value to the UK economy of the creative industries is surely a reason to invest in creativity within the BSF programme a story about my son & where no flashy new school buildings would have made an iota of difference with his school.
Don’t get me started about careers officers, my daughters were both scolded for not wearing black suits to meet the careers officer, a black suit, unless it was by Comme Des Garcons would probably create a bad impression with the kind of jobs my daughters aspire to. Lets not get carried away with the buildings. The people who work in them are pretty important too and some of their thinking is past its sell by date.
Can’t schools be seen as a step to start earning money? There’s a pointer in Kent at the Thanet Skills Studio where young people who are more inspired by building walls or repairing cars can spend part of the week doing this, its flawed though, it should be part of a school not separate and it would be great if the public could go there to get their car repaired, but it’s a start.
Finally I keep hearing about architects moaning about their ideas and designs for the new schools being bastardised, a result of the “Design and Build” process. I know its difficult, but it is the duty of a designer to try and do everything possible to ensure that the finished product is the best that could have been achieved, even if it means going the extra mile once the fee stream has dried up.
I am sounding negative, and there are some good pointers out there – Designmyschool.com, Dott o7 and on the CABE website.
But let’s not rush, imagine spending £64 billion and being disappointed…