I set up School Works (now the British Council for School Environments) in 1999, to look at the connections between learning and the built environment.
School Works was a response to the government’s decision to invest millions in the refurbishment of school buildings. We asked what our schools should be like when the world beyond the school gates has changed so radically since our post war secondary schools were built. The aim was to ensure a social and educational return on the capital investment to be made in school buildings and to develop new guidelines and policy through practice.
Our first partner school was Kinsgsdale in South London. At the start of the project Kingsdale, a large, mixed inner city comprehensive was officially failing on ‘special measures’ and ineligible to receive capital funding. We argued that it was exactly such a school that should receive investment and set about proving our case.
Our inter-disciplinary team included educational experts, psychologists and the architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan who worked with the school’s senior management team, pupils and staff developing recommendations for the re-design of the curriculum, pastoral care, management systems and the buildings which would provide the much needed new spaces. The government committed £10 million to the implementation of the plans.
In 2004 Kingsdale was recognised as one of the UK’s top 20 improved schools and an independent evaluation of the School Works process by Price Waterhouse Coopers recommended the widespread adoption of the project process and principles.
From the start our objective however was not to be a partner in the transformation of one school, but rather to transform the process of capital investment in schools, through our project practice. The Department for Education set up an Advisory Group under the Schools Minister to take forward our policy recommendations. It is now accepted as common sense that decisions on a school’s physical fabric should not be taken in isolation from the broader learning agenda.
School Works Ltd (now BCSE) is an independent, not for profit company and has since worked with 52 schools in 13 Local Education Authorities, always putting the school pupils, staff and wider community at the heart of the project. www.BCSE.uk.net
My own passion for the learning agenda continues. At the Design Council I initiated the Kit for Purpose project, which looked at how schools without a capital budget might address educational issues such as staff retention and pupil concentration through smaller design led initiatives to change management systems or even the arrangement of a classroom. Some of these smaller projects have shown how important a highly participative design-led process can be in unleashing the creativity within a school and transforming its fortunes for a relatively modest budget. I would like one day to take this work further and look at what a community created learning process might really look like. Like most of our leading educational practitioners I think that too many schools remain institutions out of step with wider society.