Why architects need to bring the inside out when it comes to school design

By Peter Smith, director, Innova Design Solutions

They say it’s what’s inside that counts, and for UK schools, this has never been more true. Figures from the office for National Statistics indicate that from next year the number of pupils in state-funded secondary schools will start to rise as a result of the baby boom of the early 2000s.

With a 20 per cent increase in secondary pupil numbers between now and 2024 and impending cuts to funding, schools with tight budgets and full classrooms face the pressure of finding extra space for these students with precious little money for new builds or refurbishments.

The Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP) has helped to cut costs with a pragmatic approach that’s replaced dark, cramped 20th century classrooms with light, bright, contemporary spaces fit for modern learning.

However, as the main aim is to accommodate a rising number of students, PSBP focuses on buildings’ exteriors and the provision of essential features, such as heating, lighting and acoustics. With little money left over, the interiors of these new classrooms is often overlooked, or basic at best.

Earlier this year, RIBA’s response to the House of Commons Education Select Committee on PSBP stated that time pressure meant architects often received inconsistent, inaccurate briefs for PSBP projects. RIBA also suggested that the baseline standards PSBP sets out for classroom design are inflexible and result in public areas of schools being squeezed for space, resulting in increased incidences of bullying and vandalism.

So to say architects on PSBP projects focus on the exterior of the building at the expense of the interior would be a lazy and counterproductive argument: RIBA’s comments show they feel just as much frustration with the restrictions that are placed on them as we do as education interiors specialists. Standardised design may be restrictive, but what we need is for architects, schools, contractors and interiors specialists to work together and think outside the ‘functional boxes’ of PSBP to create learning spaces fit for an educational landscape that’s undergoing profound change.

Teaching and learning have changed radically in the last decade, and developments in technology mean school buildings will need the ability to evolve to prepare students for the ‘brave new world’ that waits for them beyond the school gates in the next twenty years.

Offering an empty box- style classroom that can be filled with chairs, desks and students is one solution, but not one anyone involved in education design would see as ideal. Studies by Salford University have found good classroom design can boost a pupil’s performance by up to 25 per cent and features such as distinctive floor plans, breakout areas and providing space to display work, can all impact on how students develop academically.

Our own experiences in asking secondary school students to design the school science lab of the future showed us just how design savvy and technologically aware today’s teenagers are: a basic classroom lacking in creativity and complexity simply won’t stimulate or inspire them.

When time and money is tight and the guidelines we have to work to even tighter, it’s easy to create work that meets the brief and forget about the people who really matter – the end users. Today’s students are the architects, educators, contractors and yes, the education interiors specialists of tomorrow.

Not every classroom we create together can be another Sterling Prize winner like Burntwood School, but by shifting our focus to what’s inside our schools we can create learning spaces that are truly outside-the-box.