The BSF initiative (Building School for the Future) is providing high levels of investment, but changes must be able to stand the test of time. Philip Watson looks at the questions schools need to consider

Approaches to learning and teaching are continually evolving. Blackboards and chalk have been replaced with interactive whiteboards, laptops and other personal devices accessing intranet learning platforms. Government initiatives such as Building Schools for the Future (BSF) are helping to ensure that schools are equally modern and up to scratch. But with change moving at such a pace, how can schools be confident that the approaches taken now will still be applicable in years to come?

There is no doubt that the majority of schools in the UK are in need of modernisation. Most are over 25 years old and many have been around for much longer. Through its Building Schools for the Future initiative, the government has made its largest investment in education since Victorian times, with a spend up 58% in the last 10 years. Partnerships for Schools, the organisation tasked with making BSF a reality, says that the programme will see every state secondary school in England – around 3,500 in total – rebuilt or remodelled. Launched in February 2004, BSF is the largest and most ambitious scheme of its kind anywhere in the world. It will transform education for some 3.3m pupils aged 11 to 19. Eleven BSF schools have already opened their doors to pupils, teachers and the wider community, and with over half of local authorities now engaged in the programme, the pace of delivery is accelerating all the time.

With high levels of investment being poured into the education system, BSF is giving schools the opportunity to make transformational changes. However, with both the curriculum and technologies currently evolving at such a rate, all new developments must be able to stand the test of time. It is hard to predict what new-fangled technologies will be available in the next year, let alone in the next five years. Similarly, the National Curriculum is constantly evolving and schools are being given greater autonomy to introduce new models that challenge traditional teaching methods. It is the joint responsibility of government, local authorities, designers and, most importantly, the schools themselves, to collaborate to ensure that every school is given the chance to enable learning to grow and flourish over the years to come.

Barriers to change

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring teachers are bought into BSF and are in agreement that we need to move towards a more pupil-centred approach. A classic ‘chalk and talk’ method has always been the preferred style of many teachers and it has only been in the last few years that a range of new technologies have entered the classroom and opened up possibilities for new ways of learning and teaching.

It is essential to consult teachers closely throughout the entire renewal process. An example of where this is being done well is in Knowsley. To help teachers become acclimatised to new teaching methods and spaces, Knowsley LA has implemented a change management process which involves teachers using trial spaces, known as ‘home bases’, to practice and learn new methods of delivering education before moving to their new schools.

The fixation on safety and familiarity and the aversion to change haunts many industries. Perhaps education can learn from the office industry, which transformed modern office space from old cellular offices into open plan space with adjustable furniture and flexible access to ICT, moveable partitions and glass walled meeting rooms. It is exactly this type of spatial transformation we need to see in the classroom.

However, in practice we are seeing many schools shying away from transformational changes and instead demanding new ‘old schools’. It is vital that we work directly with teachers and educationalists to help them harness the opportunities and technologies available, giving them an insight into what learning-led design can really offer. People are the real enablers and it is only with their support that the goal of bringing schools into the future can become a reality.

Funding and LAs
During his tenure as prime minister, Tony Blair cited BSF as the ‘greatest school renewal programme in British history’. With BSF funding being made available to every secondary school in the UK, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Allocate the funding correctly and schools will benefit from the foresight and lateral thinking of all those involved; get it wrong and the opportunity is lost forever.

Every stakeholder involved is keen to get the greatest value for money and to secure as much reward as possible from each investment, yet some LAs take a backwards view that is making this impossible.

Take, for example, the fact that each school is entitled to a certain level of funding according to building area. Space can be allocated in any way to achieve funding, yet LAs often fall back on the traditional methods of calculation. This results in an area-schedule brief to designers that restricts learning and teaching to traditional forms, ie teaching in batches of 30. From this method, designers are often challenged to provide additional space to provide ‘break out’ areas that can be used for more personalised learning and social activities.

Designers are severely limited by this, and the results are almost always new versions of old schools. If this area doesn’t exist in the budget, then it can’t be invented. LAs need to provide guidance to schools to help them realise there are more innovative ways of allocating their precious space that will help them facilitate transformation in learning.

Embracing new ways of teaching and technologies

While there is a common desire among teachers to improve teaching practices, most find it difficult to visualise what this might look like in spatial terms. Educationalists are being encouraged to embark on a transformational journey towards a more personalised or ‘learner-centred learning’ scenario, beginning to tailor learning to meet individual needs, but many just don’t know where to start.

I believe that all those involved in education need help to realise this vision. We need to collaborate with teachers and give them the tools to understand what they can achieve from a new approach to design. We should get schools to think of internal social spaces where pupils can develop social skills and feel comfortable – and then make these places for learning too. Teachers should be asked to rethink how the school could be organised to create this inspirational ethos. I think there are 10 top considerations.

Case studies

The case studies below are examples of projects that have challenged the norm and created new learning environments that allow a variety of pedagogical approaches to be explored.

Hassenbrook School – The iLab
Hassenbrook School iLab is a great example of how a small design budget can reap large rewards by extending the scope of a facility and providing an exceptional working environment for its users. For this technology-focused school, a custom-built experimental ICT facility was created, which was designed to provide dedicated space for facilitation techniques that focus on stimulating creative thinking. The i-Lab concept is based on experimental work completed by the Post Office and is aimed at stimulating new ideas by creating unusual synergies. The creation of the iLab has provided a stimulating environment within the school for strategy meetings, creative problem-solving, team-building, presentations and customer focus groups. School pupils, staff, and the local community all put the iLab to good use, and local businesses are able to book and use it as a conference facility, bringing an additional revenue stream to the school.

Hipperholme and Lightcliffe School – A creative space for students to surf the net
Hipperholme and Lightcliffe School in Halifax wanted to refresh the school to provide both students and staff with a new environment to both work and socialise in. With a limited budget, the school worked with an external partner to combine an area previously dedicated to learning with a broad circulation space to create a large and flexible learning and social space. During timetabled lessons this space is used by students and teachers for both directed learning and small group work. During break and lunchtimes, light/casual dining and access to the internet and computers combine to make it a lively venue for students to meet with friends, do homework and research school projects. The interior design took the idea of ‘surfing the net’ literally by utilising real surf boards to create table tops. This gives the space a funky feel and this has since become the most popular space for students in the new school.

Making it happen

In order to make the most of Building Schools for the Future, there needs to be an open, intelligent and informed debate between educationalists, government bodies and designers to develop new schools that are fit for the 21st century. I believe that success in creating transformational education facilities has only occurred where teachers and local authorities have collaborated under a shared aspirational vision.

All parties need to have ownership of this vision and the belief that new schools have the potential to act as catalysts to really transform the education of our young people.

Philip Watson is head of education at Atkins, a company that has pioneered creative solutions to learning as part of the Building Schools for the Future initiative.