In 2000, the Government’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES) piloted twenty-seven new school projects around the country in an initiative called ‘classrooms of the future’. By starting with a polemical question ‘what is “a classroom of the future”?’, it encouraged both a design-led approach and an exploration of where the theory of the classroom design meets practice. David Miliband, the government minister involved, described the challenge as ‘designing inspiring buildings that can adapt to educational and technological change’.1
Chris Bissell from the DfES, the initiator of ‘the classrooms of the future’ initiative sums up his expectations:
to deliver the best and most effective education exploiting all the possibilities of the information age, school buildings need to reflect advances in technology. They need to provide a pleasant and comfortable environment for learning and to use architectural and design features to stimulate children’s imaginations. And they need to be open to wider use, binding schools to their local communities.
The project encapsulates all the Government’s latest education initiatives. The classrooms need to be technology-led, open to local community use, matched to the curriculum and to be comfortable, healthy and inclusive. ICT is being championed by the DfES and others as the key to flexible ways of teaching and communication. It was clear that using new technologies was the most important theme – the future embodied in technology generally and information technology in particular. There was also an interest in the ‘classroom of the future’ initiative to develop a new modular or universal solution to the existing challenge of replacing all the delapidated mobile classrooms currently littering our school sites up and down the country. The argument for universality and prototypes is powerful. It is consistent with contemporary forms of building procurement, and in a return to 1960s thinking, some of the classrooms of the future nationally are suggesting prototypes for modular buildings; repeatable units to be attached to any school. This gives ease of erection and much reduced design time and costs in the long run.
The argument for individual, special buildings with specific details is inevitably more difficult to justify and is arguably less cost-effective in the long run. Discussions between the architects and the four chosen schools in Sheffield had already established an understanding of what each particular school required, the schools’ teaching and learning agenda and their individual characteristics. All the schools had very different priorities.
Ballifield Community Primary School, one of the schools chosen, is a successful and popular school in the local community. It was built in the early 1970s. It is a single storey brick building with an interesting open-plan layout. However, the school has particular problems. Ballifield’s priority was to replace two rundown, temporary classrooms with technology-filled new classrooms. The school is also completely inaccessible with level changes throughout its interior landscape. Ballifield has never had a disabled child or parent in the school because they can not be catered for – there are too many steps everywhere.
The school is right on the edge of Sheffield, a former industrial city which now suffers from considerable deprivation due to the loss of its industrial base over the past thirty years. However, it is surrounded by generous green sloping grounds and looks over fields separated from the school by a recently restored ancient hedge.
The final brief for the ‘classroom of the future’ project at Ballifield incorporates two new classrooms with a new main entrance, cloakroom, toilets and offices. We decided that the new classrooms were to be placed at the front entrance to the school instead of being hidden away as stand alone classrooms on the edge of the playground, like the rundown mobile classrooms they were replacing. The project aimed to solve the inadequate entrance and access problems, discussed by staff and parents, and create a new image for the school for both the children and the community. The new entrance became nearly as important as the classrooms, changing the character of the whole school and raising aspirations as an important byproduct of its novelty.
Although new technology was a crucial element in the scheme at Ballifield, the project developed as a part of an exploration of themes in children’s lives today. We, the architects, took the opportunity to design classroom environments specifically tailored to the needs of the school and the children.
In this chapter the key themes are explored and then put in context of the consultation we carried out with the teachers and the children, and the resulting building that took shape. As with all of our work, we place the users at the centre of our design process. With a school this has significant additional implications, as we need to consult with the children as well as the teachers. The process was helped in this respect by our relationship with the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Students helped to develop and sustain a deep process of participatory design.