The schools we’d like: young people’s participation in architecture

Ben Koralek and Maurice Mitchell

Editor’s introduction

The view that children’s perceptions of space are different to those of adults is the central premise of Chapter 7. What follows is the proposition that children and young people have a democratic right to be heard about the make up of their education, and most importantly the form of their school buildings, many of which were designed for the nineteenth century. The authors illustrate a range of initiatives which have been implemented within the UK over the past ten years which have transformed the perceptions of those who have participated. For example, the work of the Building Experiences Trust and then School Works has challenged the conventional professional view that children have nothing to offer to the design process.

The second part of this chapter describes in some detail a number of participatory projects which have bridged the gap between architecture and education. The creativity of the end result illustrates how good school design could be if the views of its users were heard. This illustrates how important it is to get children’s views about their lives and the kinds of spaces they would like to have for themselves. However, it is not a straightforward discursive process. Detailed case studies where school students have actually worked with designers illustrates what is possible if appropriate inclusive methods are used to talk and listen to schoolchildren properly.

Although full of childlike fantasy, there are some remarkably grounded ideas to transform existing and new school environments and to make them more appropriate for the present and future generations who will be expected to use them. The authors argue that as huge amounts of investment flow into the state education system, the need to ‘get it right’ has never been more critical. The commitment of professional designers would help to transform the urban fabric and make school attractive to young people.

Those architects and designers who are truly interested in the possibilities of a participatory approach will find this chapter particularly enlightening. How do you make meaningful consultation with school students within the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) process for example? When is the right moment to gauge the views of school students and what is the best process to use in order to get the best and most exciting design ideas? Here, the process is as important as the end result. In an era where the democratic process appears to be peripheral for many people, is this an approach which should be adopted more widely, to enable the future citizens of this country to engage with their world in a positive way?


Like other mammals, our children are born inextricably linked to the environment around them. In this respect, childhood is an ecosystem whose success and well-being depends equally on complex biological, social and cultural systems. As well as these non-material relationships, children are also dependent on tangible, physical environments in which to grow. Buildings, the spaces between buildings, streets, green fields, playgrounds and parks all play a significant part in shaping children’s experience of the world and their place in it.1 For the large majority of children today, one part of the built environment in particular shapes their experience of the world, that is the school.

In retrospect, we tend to associate our own childhood with pleasant domestic experiences such as slides and swings in the park, quiet rooms at home for drawing or reading, hidden spaces under an old table (ideal for listening to the radio), the local swimming pool and secret camps at the end of the garden; for many of us, our daily experience of school plays a less dominant role in our memories of childhood.

The role of memory in the design of school buildings should not be underestimated. Where our memories of specific rooms, places and buildings are concerned, adults and children have very different perceptions of architectural space.2 With our own sense of scale and proportion, adults experience places of childhood, including our former schools, as much smaller in size than our memories tell us.

Perhaps because of this difference of perception between the adult and the child, the school building provides a unique subject for collaborative working in the conception and production of space.3 As we hope to show in this chapter, a dialogue on the design of school buildings can provide a bridge between adult and child perceptions of architectural space because it is a space they both share during the most formative years of child development.

Until very recently, UK school buildings in all their many shapes, styles and sizes, represented children’s space as conceived by adults, and adults alone. This chapter focuses specifically on recent projects and participatory design processes in which young people have collaborated with professional and student architects in the remodelling and the making of new learning environments.

In exploring the production of children’s spaces, and school buildings especially, it is worth acknowledging that virtually all of the spaces used and inhabited by children today are still designed, made and managed by adults. This is just as true at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was for the great European interpreters of childhood of the past: Rousseau (in the eighteenth), Froebbel (in the nineteenth) and Montessori (in the early twentieth century).

In her seminal research on children’s cognitive development, Montessori acknowledged both the need to develop new ways for adults to work with children in educational settings, and the importance of the environment on children’s learning.4 In these ways, Montessori’s work holds a special relevance to this chapter’s analysis of the production of children’s spaces. Just as children require time for their cognitive development, their socialization and their individual journeys along the play-learning continuum, children and young people also require a range of spatial settings: play areas, learning environments and buildings in which to experience their world and develop their identity.

As has been well documented (by Montessori’s natural ‘successors’) in the municipality of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, children growing up in the urban environment play a key role in shaping a city’s identity and civic culture.5 As Loris Malaguzzi, the principal founder and key protagonist in establishing the approach to early years education in Reggio Emilia reminds us:

children ask us to be their allies in resisting hostile pressures and defending spaces for creative freedom which, in the end, are also spaces for joy, trust and solidarity.6

Indeed, as those working in and supporting the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia demonstrate, the life and healthy evolution of a city depends on the well-being and creativity of its young people.

In Reggio Emilia, for example, children are actively engaged in an ongoing discourse with the urban and learning environments in which they work and play. Supported by studio-based ‘learning supervisor-researchers’ – the atelierista, children at these state-funded pre-schools investigate and manipulate their studio spaces and explore their home city as a matter of course. They draw, make models and create stories about the things they touch, see, hear and experience. Their journeys across the urban environment become familiar and highly personalized elements within their cognitive development; many of which have been further celebrated, recorded and animated on return to the pre-schools and their creative studio spaces which provide an adaptable container for the children’s expressive work, or as Malaguzzi says, ‘a kind of aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and culture of the people who live in it.’ The interior architectural environments of the Reggio Emilia pre-schools must, by definition, allow for flexible remodelling prompted by the activities and ideas of the children. For this reason, and the fact that their ‘pedagogical coordinators, teachers, and parents met to plan with the architects’ in the design of their learning environments, the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia provide a very useful precedent to our analysis of young people’s participation in the architectural process; and a point of reference to which we will return later in this chapter.7 However, whilst the influence of the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia continues to spread across continental Europe and in north America, the state education system in the UK has been slow to absorb the important pedagogical insights and professional practice pioneered in what is now referred to as the ‘Reggio approach’. Likewise, British architects are only now rediscovering the creative challenge in designing learning environments which take into account contemporary educational practice for the benefit of UK schoolchildren.

To this day, school communities in the UK are still – typically – housed in Victorian or post-1945 buildings designed by adults to contain and condition young people into being responsible citizens capable of taking their place in a productive society.8 Children’s learning and early social experiences are still shaped in much older rooms, playgrounds, laboratories, corridors and halls designed by distant generations of architects in response to very different pedagogical, social and cultural criteria. For some, like child psychologist David Elkind, schools, and by default the buildings in which they operate, ‘represent our past rather than our future’.9 Authoritative antique Victorian school building stock still commands a powerful physical position in the British landscape of childhood.

As we explore in Part Three of this chapter, as an expression of governmental control of children’s time and space, the school ‘boards’ of the Victorian era (established as part of the 1870 Education Act) set a new standard. Not only did the school boards have the power to make their own by-laws, decide whether or not to charge fees for schooling, determine what subjects ‘Masters’ were to teach their pupils in the classroom, they also exercised the authority to build and maintain school buildings using public finances (‘rates’), for the first time in British history.

The motives behind the establishment of the school boards may have been mixed. Whether philanthropic in essence, or as an agent of social control (or both), the school boards’ attempt to hold young people in custodial care also defined a relationship between central government and children’s education which has become the founda­tion for the industrialized world’s contemporary school system (Friere, 1971; Illich, 1971; Gatto, 1992 et al.). At the same time, the school boards defined a very specific form of architectural children’s space; many of which are still in use today.

In a world where young people were to be ‘seen and not heard’, Victorian children had absolutely no chance to voice their opinion as to how these new spaces would be arranged or their school days organized, let alone what the new school buildings would look like. British children would have to wait a hundred years for such a privilege.

In Part Three of this chapter, through an examination of some recent case studies, we will explore ways in which children’s design ideas can be developed with architecture students to reinterpret and adapt formal board school spaces from the inside out. As we will show in Parts Two and Four, the idea that children might work alongside architects as they have done at Lightwoods Community primary school in the West Midlands and with School Works at Kingsdale secondary school in London is only now becoming a viable reality.10 However, the roots of this kind of participatory collaboration go back approximately thirty years.

Our title for this chapter takes its name from the Observer newspaper’s 1967 competition – ‘The School That I’d Like’, which invited British secondary school students to reinvent their schooling at a time when their experience of education was still that of containment ‘in the prison of a most dreadful conformity’.11

At the height of 1960s radical student activism, and in the same year that the benefits of a more ‘child-centred’ primary education became more formally acknowledged (in the 1967 Plowden Report), ‘The School That I’d Like’, gave young people the chance to collectively, and very publically, voice their opinion, and vent their spleen, on both the organization of learning and the quality of school buildings.12 Of the subsequent contributions, children’s author and the competition’s ‘patron’ Edward Blishen reflected that ‘most, however, were either out of patience with school buildings as they are, or were profusely able to think of improvements. Most were tired of squareness: where an actual shape was suggested, nine times out of ten it was a round one. Domes were yearned for’.13

In 1967, the Observer received almost 1000 ideas for new schools: ‘some half a million words, innumerable charts, collages, architectural or pseudo-architectural drawings’.14 Thirty years later, in the midst of New Labour’s successful 1997 General Election campaign, the Guardian newspaper repeated ‘The School I’d Like’ competition. Second time around, 15 000 primary and secondary pupils sent their ideas on video, in 3-d model form, in drawings, photographic collages and in text (epic poems, plays, dictated comments and in Braille); and in response to newly-elected Prime Minister Blair’s now infamous declaration of a Labour government’s top three priorities to be: ‘Education, education, education’ (on April 15th 1997), just seven weeks later, and as a product of the second ‘The School I’d Like’ competition, the Guardian also published The Children’s Manifesto calling for beautiful, comfortable, safe schools.

With the reappearance of ‘The School I’d Like’ competition format in 1997, and the active involvement of the (then) New Labour think-tank DEMOS and London’s Architecture Foundation, the quality of school building design was placed back on the political agenda.15 Second time around, a generation of more politically-enfranchised school children would have an even louder voice thanks in part to the formal framework established by the UK Children’s Act (1989) and Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) in which children and young people ‘had the right to express an opinion on all matters which concern them.’16

With New Labour’s commitment to a greater degree of public participation in the delivery of public services, it appeared (to many) that young people now had a direct invitation to take part in the political process. For the first time, perhaps, it seemed that children’s requests for a respectful school with flexible timetables and a more relevant curriculum would also be heard. For the first time, young people would be able to express their perception of the quality of school buildings, and the adults around them would have to listen.

With projects like School Works and The Sorrell Foundation’s ‘joinedupdesignforschools’ initiative established in 2000 to ‘join up UK designers with schools across the country to demonstrate how design and creativity can improve the quality of life and learning in schools’, calling for a new kind of working partnership between professional adult designers and young people, and given the enormous sums of public and private finance going into new schools production in the UK, the stakes were (and remain) high. Could young people express their design ideas clearly enough for them to be incorporated into new schools’ architecture? Would architects be able to listen and work with a young public looking to participate in the planning and design processes? Whilst managing expensive building programmes, would local education authorities be prepared to allow additional time to engage with young people? These kinds of questions continue to vex design and education professionals seeking to develop and improve new learning environments.

Through the examination of some important recent participatory collaborations between designers and young people, we hope to sketch out some answers, and in doing so, to show the simplicity of our argument.

With the hundreds of expensive new schools currently scheduled for design and construction in the UK, and despite the engagement of advice and support of advocates of good design, few students, teachers or parents will be allowed the time to actively engage with the design process before the building starts.17

Whatever kinds of old, new or remodelled spaces a school community has to work in, young people and their teachers should be allowed and encouraged to take the time to engage in their own ongoing process of site-specific investigation, analysis and creative design. Their collective expertise of what works best in their environment is overlooked to their (and our) cost. As our survey of projects in Part Four, and our experience from the case studies in Part Three suggests, this kind of knowledge emerges within the framework of working relationships developed over time and from direct experience of a pragmatic and participatory collaboration with designers.

To avoid, or repair the costly errors of judgement or almost inevitable misunderstandings and compromise in large-scale, ‘fast-track’, multiple-school new-build projects, a modest, (comparatively) inexpensive, continuing, and – above all – child-centred design process might ensure the best possible learning environments for young people.18

However, in rethinking our approach to the design of learning environments and school buildings, we should remember that despite the growing number of school building design projects, and the subsequent opportunity for dialogue between adult designers and school children, the knowledge gap between architects and young people is still too wide. ‘As a society, we are shamefully ignorant of the positive impact that architecture and the design of cities can have on our lives. We need to make far-reaching changes in our approach to the built environment, and should be prepared to legislate for them. Education is one important component in remedying the situation, and a new system of participatory planning is essential.’19 Despite some significant progress in these areas (as we shall see), Richard Rogers’ 1997 general criticism is, largely, still accurate.

Updated: October 3, 2015 — 3:57 am