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‘Failure to invest in where we manufacture society is a dereliction of duty’

As the AR School Awards show, there’s no shortage of architects and designers willing to deliver schools of exceptional quality

It’s a strange sensation sitting on the other side of the table - judging rather than being judged. But here I am with a stack of print outs, a great sense of sympathy and the onerous task of judging the AR School Awards. Heaven knows how much time each project represents. And it’s ridiculous to try to distil all this human endeavour to a few sheaves of A4. Judging like this is, inevitably, a brutal act.

But it’s also a privilege, affording an incredible bird’s-eye view over global attitudes to education design. The range we saw was huge - from expensive decorations at hallowed Ivy League campuses to Scandinavian schools that put the rest of us to shame with their obvious pastoral care. We saw schools created in difficult circumstances as places of refuge from turmoil - and schools that looked more like work camps. Others resembled ramshackle homes, some seemed like offices. In short, the view we had of educational spaces demonstrated a kaleidoscopic explosion of possibilities.

Schools are strange places, that we - adults - create specifically for the young. Places outside of the normal world that we charge with a very important job. But what that job is, it transpires, is very hard to pin down, let alone agree on. Are they places designed for control, or indoctrination, or to nurture? Are they to prepare kids for the world to come? Or should they allow children’s personalities and interests to develop before they have to encounter the crushing reality beyond? Most likely, it is a combination of all of these. And even if we were clear about this, what would it mean when precipitated into architecture?

‘Schools throw into sharp focus bigger ideas about society. Their design gives solid form to deep questions about society, humanity and architecture itself.’

Schools throw into sharp focus bigger ideas about society. Their design gives solid form to deep questions about society, humanity and, of course, architecture itself. A school is a kind of microcosm: an idealised version that we make of the world (or for the world) into which we place our youngest citizens. Where architecture - organisation, space, material, light, nature - choreographs life to an extent far more all-consuming than any other space we’re likely to encounter. Architecture acts as a mechanism of control, assuming a kind of supreme authority beyond a level found elsewhere. But it also assumes the role of protection, a place of safety and refuge. And that’s what makes the design of schools so ideologically loaded. These are questions which also ask us about the power and role of architecture in society. How can it shape society? What contribution can it make to humanity? How can it allow us to be more fully human?

Even when the space of education is free of institutional architecture - as, say, in home schooling or the tradition of forest schools - the act of describing a place as ‘hosting education’ remains just as complex, just as weighted with questions.

We, as judges, were lucky to see many schools where these questions had been thought about deep and hard. And where the subsequent design reflects the kind of nuanced and careful resolution of these ideas: classrooms with light and space, social areas broad and inclusive, landscape that merges with building. Places where imagination - and humour even - leavens inevitable institutional qualities.

‘If we want to create public value in society, it is schools that need this kind of thinking - and investment - most of all’

Yet sadly many schools display something else. In Britain’s now deceased Building Schools for the Future programme, the idea of a school was a function not of any philosophy of education but of supply chain efficiencies as administered by global contractors: the mechanism of building a school was the focus. But what is the real nature of a society with these priorities? If BSF often demonstrated institutional failure, the scrapping of the commitment to invest in the physical infrastructure of the nation’s schools is an even greater calamity. The failure to invest in the places where we manufacture society is an abject dereliction of duty.

Even more so when the value of educational spaces is fully recognised elsewhere. Think of those hyper sophisticated tech campus projects. Much of their design thinking is derived (as the name suggests) from the world of education. Here, the design is valued for its ability to create spaces that foster knowledge, experiment and interaction. But these are private, corporate worlds whose interest in those concerns is itself private.

If we want to create public value in society, it is schools that need this kind of thinking - and investment - most of all. Though, as we saw through the judging process, it’s about the possibility of investing much more than just money. It’s the way in which design can invest imagination, discipline, ingenuity and self-respect into even the most challenged of situations. If we can’t offer up these qualities for the spaces of education, then how do we expect to communicate those self-same qualities to the youngest in our society? Schools should be the measure of a society’s belief in human qualities. Education and finance ministers should have their eyelids held open while force fed images of the substandard horrors of contemporary schools until they cry for mercy.

As the AR School Awards show, there’s no shortage of architects and designers willing (and highly capable) to deliver schools of exceptional quality. What remains a tragedy is that these kinds of school remain the exception.

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