Innovative approaches to school buildings

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Hard economic times do not necessarily mean that new school buildings need to suffer. Alex Wood has been impressed by some innovative approaches being taken in Scotland.

Hard economic times have an impact on schools, usually, but not inevitably, for the worse. A recent conference on the links between learning and the spaces in which it occurs, illustrated innovative responses to keeping our school estate in working order, to replacing buildings no longer fit-for-purpose, but also to thinking imaginatively about costs.

John Fyffe of Perth and Kinross Council offered perhaps the most systematically innovative approach. New schools built in Perth, Crieff, Aberfeldy and Kinross have all been designed first for learning, second with the active input of young people as well as parents and teachers to the design process, and finally as community resources. 

That model of change brings problems as well as opportunities. Some of these were first encountered when community high schools were developed in the Lothians in the 1980s. If the school is welcoming adults as learners and as facility-users, are they also welcome in the staffroom? When a community library and a school library are jointly re-sited on the community school campus, which ethos applies: silent reading or discussion and reading? Does the canteen operate as a school lunch hall or an adult cafeteria? Can mobile phones be banned on a community resource?

The need to use resources smartly and economically but to provide an expanding range of community services is now operating beyond the traditional community schools and the innovatory work in Perth and Kinross. North Ayrshire Council rebuilt Dalry Primary School with a collaborative approach involving artists Bruce McLean and Will McLean and North Ayrshire Council’s Educational and Technical Services departments.

Embodying the concept of “Imbedded Intelligence”, the school is divided into a community area that includes a full-sized games hall and facilities, refectory, kitchens and administration; a central spine that houses meeting rooms and the extraordinary inflatable ICT suite, the environmental house on top of the building and changing rooms and toilets; and class bases. 

Learning is built into the structure itself. One wall has painted on it the most common 1,000 words in the English language. Another incorporates a set of coloured filters which, changing as the day progresses, illustrate how colours mix and merge.

In both the Dalry and the Perth and Kinross developments, boys’ and girls’ toilets have been abolished and replaced by suites of single toilet cubicles. In Dalry these have sinks inside each cubicle, in some of the Perth and Kinross schools with a common sink area in the suite. Despite initial parental fears, the impact has been entirely positive with an end to bullying in the toilet areas, much greater care taken by pupils, and a reduced need for adult supervision.

North Ayrshire Council however, is about to move to an even more adventurous project. In 2011 the council agreed to build a new school campus in Kilbirnie, incorporating Garnock Academy, a merged primary school (replacing two current primaries), and community leisure facilities.

The new school will be almost unique on mainland Scotland in that this will not be a secondary school and a primary school sharing a campus, but one school catering for all children from two to 18. Issues of status, primary-secondary tensions and parental fears for younger children will pose challenges to the management in this brave new world.

There is a justifiable fear among teachers and parents that hard economic times mean poorer school maintenance and the deferral of necessary repairs, upgrading and replacement of school buildings. There is also however an opportunity to think imaginatively, seek to use public resources effectively and to bring agencies which should be working together into at least the physical proximity which might make cooperation easier.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.

   


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