School Works: new user-group participation in secondary school design

Established between 1999-2000, and originally an Architecture Foundation project, School Works was devised as a way of bringing a new awareness to the relationship between the architecture of secondary school buildings and effective learning. On the one hand, the project seeks to address the gulf between education professionals who don’t appreciate design concepts and find it hard to prioritize or envisage the level of environmental change needed in school buildings. On the other hand, School Works seeks to inform designers and architects who know little about developments in pedagogy, curricula or educational technology and their impact on schools design in buildings which need to work now and into the future.

As the DfES-sponsored initiative declared from its outset: ‘We cherish our homes; we aspire to beautiful places of work. Why should our schools be different?’ (School Works, 2000, see Bibliography).

Indeed, at a key moment in the development of New Labour’s education policy, School Works’ opening rhetorical question set a new and dramatically simple benchmark in the school design debate of the new millennium. Fresh on the heels of Blair’s now infamous sound-bite commitment to education (sic.) and in anticipation of significant capital expenditure on new school buildings at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the School Works project sought to ignite a new level of interest in the architecture of schools and the relationship between building design and pupil achievement.

In response to the growing body of mostly American research evidence (Edwards, 1991; Earthman et al., 1995; Hines, 1996 and Maxwell, 1999) showing that there is some relationship between (a) architectural design, (b) shifts in perception, organizational self-esteem and aspiration within a school community and (c) higher student achievement, School Works set out to show a UK government that high quality design in the architecture of schools can make a qualitative and quantitative difference in the academic and social lives of secondary school students.62 To further this aim, with support from the New Economics Foundation and with reference to the DfES’ own quantitative and qualitative indicators, School Works established a set of measures to assess the impact of streamlined architectural design on pupil achievement.63

Ideologically and historically, School Works has its roots in the simple idea of giving your school a ‘make-over’. Adopting this young person’s term – fresh from the Valley area of southern California, and an ever-popular topic of conversation amongst the female protagonists of US TV series ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ (aired weekly on British TV during the mid 1990s) – ‘Makeover At School’ was devised by SENJIT (the Special Education Needs Joint Initiative for Training at the University of London Institute of Education). Like School Works, Makeover At School (M@S) set out to find new ways for architects to explore design solutions in the remodelling of school buildings.64 Extending SENJIT’s M@S’s work, a small Architecture Foundation team (including social anthropologist

Hilary Cottam and architect Dominic Cullinan) tested the beginnings of a new, creative process in six London schools in which ‘teachers, pupils, classroom assistants, educational psychologists, Special Educational Needs coordinators, caretakers, heads of departments, parents and residents’ would all be included in giving ‘direct input into the design process, and indeed, be responsible for developing the design brief, supported by independent consultants with technical expertise.’65 With the launch of School Works as an independent initiative, English secondary students would – for the first time – have a voice in the design process for the refurbishment and renovation of their old school buildings. Largely thanks to School Works’ Director Hilary Cottam’s recognition of their meaningful position in the overall equation, young people could now also take their rightful place within the client team.

Working with the RIBA Competitions Office, School Works also devised a new competition format recommending that architects be appointed on the strength of both their design portfolio and the practice’s ‘proposals to engage with the potential users of the new building’.66 Specifically, School Works’ competition criteria placed a much greater emphasis on the architect’s ability to communicate with and respond to the needs and vision of the whole school community. Competition winners de Rijke Marsh Morgan’s proposal and presentation for School Works included architect Alex de Rijke taking on the role of TV news reporter in a series of ‘live’ investigative interviews taken with staff and students around the school. The choice to engage with a large (1100- strong) school audience via the most accessible mass-communication medium proved to be a smart one. In early 2001, de Rijke Marsh Morgan were appointed as project architects for School Works’ £8.5 million pilot experiment at Kingsdale School, south London.

With political support from the think-tank DEMOS and financial seed-funding from the London Borough of Southwark’s education authority, School Works assembled a multi­disciplinary team to work with dRMM and the whole school community.67 Acting as a facilitatory agent and catalyst, Cottam called on her team of professionals to devise a series of investigative workshops and activities for students, staff and Kingsdale’s neighbouring residential community.

The workshops themselves (many of which have been well documented in School Works’ own ‘Tool Kit’ publication) ranged from discussion groups, to qualitative ranking exercises, to performance art projects (see Figure 7.11). All members of the school’s community were invited to engage with the participatory exercises to help elicit how the school was functioning and to scrutinize the relationship between the architectural design of the school’s buildings and the educational, cultural and managerial organization of the school. Central to the project’s mission was a belief in the ability of the whole school community to reveal possible solutions to improve both the performance of the school’s buildings and Kingsdale’s students (see Figure 7.12).

Cottam’s School Works team were able to animate Kingsdale’s community to such an extent that a wide range of spatial, social and administrative issues were investigated and analysed within a three-month period.

For example, one group of Year 7 (12-13- year-old) students managed to show that the school’s actual provision of ICT (Information Communications Technology) hardware was much greater than the school’s operational provision. The self-named ‘Maverick Explorers’ revealed that perception of security and vandalism within Kingsdale was such that a significant amount of computer technology had been stored out of reach of the student community behind locked doors. In parallel to this, the issue of personal space and storage was investigated from the perspective of the students themselves. By asking some seemingly straightforward questions like ‘What is a locker?’, School Works were able to explore the more subtle importance and meaning for Kingsdale’s student community, of personal space within a large institutional building (see Plate 14). The locker workshop raised the fundamental, and in the case of Kingsdale, neglected issues of both individual and corporate identity within the school.

School Works: new user-group participation in secondary school design
School Works: new user-group participation in secondary school design

In concert with these activities, sensory audits, social mapping exercises and workshops investigating stress levels within the school all combined to provide a thorough and perceptive overview of what life inside Kingsdale was like for students and staff alike. Most importantly, the

three-month process of collaboration and dialogue also opened up a forum for a kind of ‘plurilogue’ on a new vision for the school, with greater aspiration and a more focused direction.68

By the end of the 2002 school year, Kingsdale students’ experience of the School Works project

had already fulfilled elements of the very new secondary ‘citizenship’ curriculum launched in September of that year. In ‘developing skills of enquiry and communication, and participation and responsible action’, dRMM’s young collaborators had also shown the value of architectural process within a more formal curriculum context.69 Rather than learn about the social functon of architecture in the form of a lesson in a classroom, Kingsdale students had their own first-hand,‘lived’ experience of design and decision-making processes. At the same time, rather than learn about what it means to be a ‘good citizen’ from traditional textbook exercises, young people had participated in round­table discussion groups, ‘community listening’ workshops, new forms of ‘active audits and surveys’ and had tested their own set of tailor-made indicators to measure and analyse their findings (Seymour, J. et al., 2001, see Bibliography). Through these aspects of the Kingsdale project, School Works has shown a new way of integrating elements of the architectural process within the secondary school curriculum.

Whilst the full achievement and implications of School Works’ Kingsdale project might be revealed following the ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ advocated by School Works, the participatory work undertaken at the school has shown that intelligent and well-synthesized collaboration between architects and young people is both possible and highly rewarding, for students, the designers and the whole school community.70 As an experiment in a new, more inclusive design process, School Works has set a new standard in the production of children’s spaces.

As well as this, despite the lack of formal assessment of the Kingsdale project’s success (according to School Works’ own, DfES’ and/or PwC’s as yet unpublished criteria), the project might, justifiably, already claim some part in a significant change in pupil and school motivation which has already swept through the culture of the school like a breath of fresh air. Indeed, if Ofsted’s measurement system of the performance of London’s Southwark schools is anything to go by, Kingsdale has seen the highest increase in ‘improvement in 15-year-olds achieving 5 grades

A*-G’ during the 1999-2002 period.71 The project has also set a precedent for client groups to take on a more proactive role in defining design briefs for school building projects.

As well as challenging the imaginations of children and adults alike, School Works also confronts the educational infrastructure with a

recommendation that ‘the users of the building____

[are] viewed as the client during the entire process.’72 Whilst questioning the traditional role of local education authorities to act as client and primary decision maker, this bold assertion raises an expectation of school communities to take on the role of client (in addition to their other existing duties). Where schools have the facility and are confident to take on a participatory process as recommended by School Works, secondary school communities are much more likely to realize effective, successful new building designs.

However, on the other hand, the assumption that secondary schools have the organizational capacity, sufficient time, political flexibility and business sense to manage and sustain their role as client (dealing with consultants and stakeholder groups, for example) whilst simultaneously running a complex and large-scale learning organization, is problematic. In addition to this, Clark has found that teachers are not always confident or proficient as ‘placemakers’.49 School Works’ aspiration also assumes that there is sufficient activity, outreach and support within our wider education authority, design and developer communities with which to foster an ongoing culture of learning about what it means to be a good client in the first place.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to those architects, designers and facilitators seeking to engage school communities in a participatory collaboration lies in the paucity of our spatial and design awareness. Whilst as a nation Britain can pride itself on her great world-renown literary culture, we are – by and large – spatially illiterate.

Against this and the wider context of the UK National Curriculum, the achievement of School Works’ Kingsdale project is perhaps doubly significant. Despite the advent of Design and Technology in both the primary and secondary school timetable, most school children in England and Wales have very little chance to investigate or learn about the buildings they work in. At the secondary level too, very few young people are given the opportunity to systematically explore the social and civic function of architecture in the urban environment.

For young people and adults alike, the lack of a more than surface understanding of the architectural process sustains a culture of low expectation as to what is possible, by design, in the built environment. The appreciation of what architectural imagination can do for a community or a city is still a mystery to most people. To a certain extent, with their lively imaginations, children especially are able to meet designers halfway. Thanks to projects like School Works and joinedupdesignforschools, the education outreach of the UK’s architecture and built environment centres and organizations like the Architecture Workshops Association, young people (as we have seen) are now empowered with an architectural language and an understanding of building design that their parents and teachers never were. In the production of children’s spaces, these participatory collaborations provide us with a living example of what is possible in the design of new learning environments, and a golden opportunity to create a new generation of user-friendly, efficient and inspirational school buildings.


It is no exaggeration to say that man who up till

now has built on a world for the adult must set to

work to build up a world for the child.73

Maria Montessori

In Britain, we have moved from a period in the history of schools’ architecture – the 1930s – in which no time at all has been allowed for architect-pupil collaboration, a time when, according to Saint (1987, see Bibliography), even ‘progressive educators thought “architecture” as such was to be avoided for schoolchildren’, to a moment, seventy years later, when School Works’ four-year Kingsdale project was born out of a twelve-week ‘intensive consultation exercise with pupils, staff, parents and the wider community to identify existing problems, encourage debate and develop ideas as to what a beautiful and functional school would look like… [culminating] in the production of an agreed building plan addressing the immediate architectural needs of the school environment.’74 This trajectory represents a significant movement towards more intelligent thinking about the design of school buildings in the UK.

In renovating and remodelling existing, older buildings, a very small number of young people have had the chance to interact with architects and designers for a few days, or a few weeks, on realized design schemes or D4R exercises of the kind described above. Beyond the ongoing ‘Architects in Residence’ schemes at schools like Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, for example, contact between architects and young people has typically been based on a single day visit by an architect – as part of an RIBA scheme, either a consultative service provided to LEAs by organizations like SENJIT or as a curriculum project delivered through national Architecture Week, or the Architecture Workshops Association, for example. Whilst these opportunities for exchange play a crucial role in maintaining contact between the worlds of school and contemporary architecture, they give little opportunity for informative dialogue between these two professional communities on the (seemingly) continuous process of ‘change’ within the UK educational system.

Increasingly politicized, often irregular, sometimes circuitous and sporadic, the organizational framework for children’s learning is subject to a significant level of uncertainty of direction over the long term (Lucas & Greany, 2000; Sterling, 2001, see Bibliography) in which repeated structural reform is a common denominator.

In response to, and as an expression of this degree of change within educational thinking, central government has, in recent times fuelled a new flourishing of ‘diversity’ and ‘flexibility’ in (Secondary) school types. The days of ‘one size fits all’ are over (Rotherham, 2001; Clark 2002, see Bibliography). City Academies, Technology

Colleges, Specialist, Beacon and Launch Pad schools (for example) have all been developed and built since New Labour’s 1997 general election victory. Whilst it is too early to tell whether local authorities now understand the need to move away from a culture of ‘homogenized schools. Schools as McDonald’s, plonked down with no feel for the local context’, there is a growing appreciation in central government of the importance of individual design in contemporary schools architecture.’75 Not only does this approach allow School Governors and Head Teachers to tailor the school building to fit its curriculum, its delivery and the particular strengths and aptitudes of the school’s teachers and learners, but it also makes it more likely that the school provides a meaningful (and ideally profitable) service for the wider surrounding neighbourhood.

With more community-specific school designs – so the rationale goes – public funds will be spent more wisely, the needs of the user will be met, and each school community is freer to express its own unique qualities. With a more responsive architecture, schools can reorientate themselves towards new roles within their neighbourhoods. With community-specific design at the forefront of a new collaborative process, schools will be better equipped (both figuratively and metaphorically) to realize a new culture of learning as an ongoing ‘life-long’ process.

However, there is more to this happy equation than at first meets the eye.

Unlike the buildings which house it, thinking on education and learning never stands still. Academic theory and political management play their part in stimulating an ongoing process of debate, interpretation and revision. Ideas about the use of space lie implicit within this complex dynamic.

The opening of a new, or reopening of a refurbished school creates an illusion in time. A building’s ‘newness’ suggests to the outside world that the complexities of teaching and learning have been resolved. Just as a building is literally fixed together, in space, rooted to its foundations so that it will not move, a new school building lulls us into a false sense of permanence. Once a school building has been finished and the school community moves in to its new home, the process of change starts up again. The building might be fixed in space and time (quite literally ‘cast in stone’), but – once opened – the intellectual, philosophical, professional and political discourse which accompanies any formal schooling mechanism shifts a gear again. The history of schooling clearly shows that ideas about teaching and learning change from generation to generation. Alongside this, efforts to adapt to new governmental initiatives, schemes and proposals and new findings in educational theory also bring with them added pressures on a school’s already complex organization.

In this quite common situation, Head Teachers can find themselves in a position where their building’s design no longer matches its function. After an initial ‘honeymoon’ period between the school community and its building, it soon becomes clear that their working environment (whether Primary or Secondary) can no longer cope with the range and diversity of activities and functions being performed within it. With layers of change being worked into the fabric of a school’s organization and culture, year by year, large school buildings – old and new alike – almost creak with the strain being placed upon them.

Some commentators have argued that designing schools without recognising the shifting boundaries of ways in which we learn, and the subsequent need for flexible and adaptable spaces for multi-purpose building use, means new school buildings could be in danger of being ‘obsolete’ before they even open.49 This is perhaps especially true of school buildings procured and operated under the PFI.

How then are schools to cope with this mismatch between their architectural environment and their learning culture?

Updated: October 7, 2015 — 7:47 am