Good versus best in designing new Welsh schools

Geraint Talfan Davies reports on a crucial debate on the future buildings in which our children will be taught

The grading of GCSEs is not the only issue on which Michael Gove may fall out with the Welsh Government. He has scrapped the previous UK government’s Schools for the Future programme in England, and is apparently intent on shrinking space standards in new schools to save money. That is his prerogative, although in the process he has thrown in rather ungentlemanly comments about architects.

Of course, he may reject the charge of ungentlemanly conduct on the basis that a gentleman is someone who does not give offence inadvertently. For Mr Gove knew exactly what he was doing when he said that it was “not our job to make architects richer”. Given the current state of the architectural profession – fees are low and most practices are hanging on by their fingertips – it was a low blow, but he knew it would appeal to a common scepticism about architects, that is often fanned by the tabloid press.

The Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews – also no stranger to robust talk – is currently unlikely to want to be seen going down a Govian route. The Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools programme is still in place in the national infrastructure investment plan, although capital is in short supply. But it is not clear what status, if any, the design guidelines on the programme’s website carry. But even if Wales does not embrace a ‘build ‘em cheap and pile ’em high’ approach, there will be a tension between standards and available cash, as was seen clearly last week at the third of the seminars on design issues organised by the Design Commission for Wales in association with the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Our reports on the previous two can be read here on housing and neighbourhoods, and here on transport.

Melanie Godfrey, programme director for the Welsh Government’s 21st century schools programme, told the seminar that improving educational performance was at the top of the Minister’s agenda and that local authorities naturally wanted new schools to be able to inspire pupils and staff, to have up to date technology and to be able to cater for pupils of abilities. But there was a balance to be struck between educational requirements, the quality of design and costs. The question was, how much tension is there between these three factors?

She said that this raised the issue of design standardisation. Was this the right way to go? And if so, what should the correct standards be? Should a standard design in a rural area differ from that in an urban area? Should they develop regional design frameworks?

Jonathan Hines, of Architype, presented case studies of two schools in which his practice had been involved – one in Wolverhampton and one in Caerphilly. He said that school buildings had to be inspiring for those who used them. They had to support teaching and learning, and should express the ethos of the school. He thought architects should aim at buildings that were ‘elegantly simple’, in order to be affordable and that the design process should engage the whole school in order to ensure a sense of school and community ownership. He himself always aimed to be ‘radically ecological’ so that children could see sustainability at work on a daily basis.

In the case of the Caerphilly school the design came out of an understanding of the primary curriculum in Wales. Apart from the plan, it was important to aim at a quality of light and air and acoustics, because these factors could affect concentration. For example, in schools that suffered from poor ventilation, concentration could often decline in the afternoon. Daylight raised children’s spirits. He also thought that architects should take account of home circumstances – planning for a calm atmosphere that might contrast with the turbulence at home for some, and placing an emphasis on eating together, something that is less common now in many homes.

He thought that Wales was getting into a more creative place than England, where there appeared to be a paradox of increasing opportunities for diversity in schools, yet a narrowing of the curriculum.

Other speakers talked of the integration of advanced ICT technology on schools at one end and of imaginative use of the landscape around schools at the other. Some thought that standardised designs often failed to take account of the landscape – often a useful tool for learning. One school in Hereford made such productive use of its landscape that it was selling the produce to the local community.

The case for standardisation was put by Steve Elkin of Scape who had developed a range of standardised designs marketed under the name Sunesis. He said that standardised designs had had a bad press, but that people should remember that many Victorian schools were build to standardised designs. His company aimed to build flexible, adaptable, quick to build solutions to meet urgent need, and for half the price.

He said the advantages of the approach were that they could give education authorities and school governors absolute certainty about capital and maintenance costs. This often allowed them to shift revenue expenditure into capital, an important financial advantage.

Although the basic designs were standard, there was a capacity to tailor the design to particular requirements, just as cars or aircraft could be personalised to suit the customer. If it was a choice between a one-off design that cost £6 million and a standardised design that cost £3.7 million, why would anybody not want to go down at road?

Sam Cassels, from Architecture and Design Scotland and Richard Parnaby, a former chair of the Design Commission, both argued that it was a false choice. Cassels said that design briefs for learning spaces are being prepared every day in Scotland and they had learnt lessons:

“One of these is that good designers working to deliver fundamental qualities in a strong brief is a key step in delivering consistently great learning spaces. Learning places need to reflect the unique characteristics of a particular place. But it also makes good sense to learn from our experience rather than invent everything from first principles. If something works well it may be well worth repeating. It is a matter of meeting the brief. If two projects have the same requirements – physical context, community needs, teaching approaches, types of pupils, design qualities – then maybe they can indeed be the same. If two project briefs share absolutely nothing in common then maybe they should result in unique, totally bespoke designs.”

His organisation had made case studies in Scotland that showed that schools with a different look and feel because of the way they responded to their locations, “whether making use of slopes, or creating shelter from exposure, or responding to a prominent location”. They learnt not only from their civic architecture legacy but also from agricultural and urban references.

He thought there were many regional differences in Scotland that had led education authorities to develop ‘families of schools’ that reflected regional preferences and circumstances – landscape, weather, ethos. He was in favour of an ‘efficiency of learning’ – the avoidance of repeated mistakes and the rapid adoption of innovation which works – what he called ‘well-intentioned plagiarism’. But he reminded the audience that most of our children will continue to educated in existing schools. There was, therefore, a need to focus also on good quality refurbishment.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. The proponents of standardisation make a powerful point when they implicitly ask what right have we to deny some children a better building simply because we have spent more than we might otherwise do on one down the road? Companies are also competing to provide standardised designs, so perhaps there is more choice than some critics will allow.

On the other hand, if we go only for standardised solutions, there is a danger that it will in many instances become a routine adoption of off-the-peg solutions where thoughtful engagement is dispensed with, or at best outsourced to a contractor. There is also a danger that more mundane designs will suppress aspiration and lower benchmarks.

We have been through a century in which we have failed to invest in every aspect of our national infrastructure, including school buildings, as we should have done. When we build new schools we should remember that we are not building for next week, but for a century.  That is why calling the programme 21st Century Schools has real meaning. Some economy is unavoidable, but we must not short-change generations of children, or deny them spaces that will release their imaginations.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

2 thoughts on “Good versus best in designing new Welsh schools

  1. Andrew Adonis: “I learned the hard way that schools, like everything else, have to be built to budget not to wish lists.” The James report in England showed that a great deal of money could be saved if school buildings were standardised. The millions saved could then be used to build more new schools. You only have to look at the state of many former local authority housing estates built in the 1960s and 1970s in Wales to see what happens when you give any architect a free hand.

  2. Many of the properties of the 60’s and 70’s that fell on their face were in fact standardised designs. The quality of materials and the ease of maintenance are crucial areas that are just good design, whether standardised or a one off. Genuine consultation with the future users is also an absolute necessity. It is not always possible to come up with a standard design, as many available sites are on brownfield with awkward footprints, planning restrictions and heavily contaminated land.

    Great yet competitively costed designs can be delivered if best practice is promoted, along with the performance of materials over time. Why does it always have to be either one or the other, when with a little common sense and communication, we can have both?

Comments are closed.

Also within Culture