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The Think Series 02: A Discussion on the Future of Educational Buildings

Continuing the collaboration between British practice ORMS and the AR, the Think Series aims to promote dialogue between different disciplines within architecture and construction. In this second edition we explore the issues shaping the debate on buildings for education

Introduction by ORMS

As a practice, ORMS is keen to understand the everyday issues and challenges faced by both the architectural profession and
our colleagues and clients in the wider construction industry. The Think initiative supports our belief that the best way of doing this is through debate and research, the outcomes of which will ultimately inform our architectural approach.

What follows is the result of the first stage in the Think process − a frank, informal and fascinating dialogue between some of the people we most admire in the industry, drawn from a wide variety of disciplines and representing many different sides of the debate. Their lively insights are highly thought-provoking and, inevitably, raise more questions than they answer. But they successfully highlight the conflicting issues which will influence the future development of educational buildings − and identify many new avenues for debate and design exploration.

Despite schools still being a recognisable typology that transcends eras, buildings for education, especially in the UK, are now increasingly subject to the conflicting pressures of funding and political agendas, as well as different strategies for procurement, such as free schools, and the rise of digital technology in the classroom. How do these factors impact on architecture and can architects still create meaningful places and spaces for learning?

OR: What we want to try and get out of this is to think about the serious issues facing the UK to see whether we can come up with some ideas about how to make life better. ORMS has designed a number of different schools but they have all been in the private sector. Between us we have a number of kids and we care about the next generation and how are we going to solve these big issues for the future. I think that starting a school from scratch is a really interesting idea because it makes you think there’s no commonly accepted ground.

JM: Phillippa, why did you get involved in setting up a free school? What was the driver for it?

PD: Partly by being an employer of UK graduates in the technology industry and finding that really hard, and partly by mentoring kids in secondary schools and being quite surprised at the provision of general state education. And so I became much more interested in secondary education. I was trying to become a governor and met others interested in developing ideas about what a school would look like organised in a different way. We then went through the marketing and application process run by the Department for Education. We also walked the streets of Hackney and approached everybody who looked like they might have a 10 year old kid, and said, ‘We’re opening this school, what do you think?’

OR: How many other groups of people are doing this? Are you exceptional?

PD: Several hundred groups applied when we did and 100 were approved. Half of those are religious schools so they are backed by a church, mosque or synagogue. Most of the other half are groups of teachers and a head, who have said, ‘We could do our own version’. So we were different in the fact that the deputy head joined the team after we originally decided to do it.

KH: What’s your business model?

PD: It’s a state-funded state school so it’s free to attend. Its genesis is fairly typical of the way new schools now get set-up as free schools, where a group puts forward a bid with support from the local community to open a school.

CH: What’s your philosophy?

PD: It’s based on the Theresianum, a school in Vienna, which has run this model of the ‘teaching morning’ and the ‘study afternoon’ for hundreds of years. The idea is to help children not just be academically excellent but also to learn how to stick up for themselves, to think for themselves and to critique what they’re presented with. This is especially relevant as the volume of information now available to children and to all of us is so immense.

OR: Is that the real differentiator? That you have a philosophy which is tried and tested, and so gives you the kudos and ability to persuade both funders and pupils that you’re worth following?

PD: Yes, but there are many levels to it. I think there’s an intellectually strong vision of what the school will be like, but we’ve also shown that we’ve met the practical challenge of setting it up in the first place.

CH: Schools still generally look like they were a hundred years ago. That’s why it’s so interesting to start something new. Now knowledge is free so the question is, ‘What are you going to teach and learn?’ The philosophy of American education is based on critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, a deep commitment to understanding, so that you don’t understand it unless you can teach it to someone else or apply it in a novel situation.

OR: Faith schools have an automatic philosophy attached to them. I wonder how many of the new schools that have been set-up in the UK, the free schools, actually do have some kind of philosophy?

CH: You’re only a school if you have a shared philosophy, if you have essential agreements among the people who work in that school, to put together something that is cogent.

JM: I think it’s fascinating that you have to justify a philosophy to start a free school. Perhaps the question should be ‘Does the government and the state side have a philosophy for all the other thousands of schools that they’re heading up?’

PD: In the bid process it’s made very explicit that basic need (ie, are there enough school places?) is not actually part of the discussion about funding. Instead it’s about parental demand and that parental demand is based on, ‘Do people like what you’re offering?’, so that’s really the philosophy. It’s essentially introducing free market principles to the state education pot of money, but that would only be a debate if all the other existing state schools were truly all the same. I visited 40 primary schools in Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets and they’re all so different for so many reasons: different catchment, different management, different building, different history. Each is palpably different and what
they want their ideal student to be like is also different.

KH: One of the problematic things about free schools is that they are so open to being used for faith schools. For many people this is extremely tricky because they’re teaching groups in order to be separate, not in order to contribute to the greater good.

PD: There’s a perception that the Church of England and Catholic primary schools are better and better for probably reasons that nobody would ever really dare to say. Everybody knows somebody who suddenly starts going to Sunday school when they have a four year old and it’s not because they’ve suddenly turned to God; it’s because they’re trying to get into a good school. From our perspective it’s helpful because it completely diffuses the debate of whether there should be a school like ours in Hackney, which is visibly open to everybody. One of the other two schools that have been opened is a faith school.


Victorian classroom from the Brook Street Ragged and Industrial School, founded in 1843. As a typology, the school remains largely unchanged since that era, but the rise of digital technology and new means of procuremement are now impacting on form and organisation

pupil power

Given the current rush to set up new schools and the presssure on capacity (London alone is facing a shortfall of 90,000 school places), how do different philosophies of education mesh with architectural ambition? And how do new ways of learning and collaboration influence design?

DM: I’m curious about the idea of a good school and philosophies informing education, particularly for younger children and how that relates to architecture. And it seems curious that you have a school that you don’t even know is going to exist yet − where does the architecture come into this? There’s a sense of a feeding frenzy around these new schools. If there are hundreds of them to be built, they have to be built within a short time frame so inevitably some of them aren’t going to be done very well. Where the architecture component comes into good schools and education more generally seems to me a profound point of discussion.

OR: If you look at the best Danish schools these schools are allowed to evolve. We did some work for the American School in London 15 years ago and we’re now doing something completely different, but this process of evolution and being able to evolve to match the needs of society is a completely different scenario from the PFI school. Then you’ve got to get it right all in one go and that’s an impossible thing to do.

JM: As architects, our role is to develop a wider vision. So somebody might say, ‘I’ve got £30 million for this building’, or they might say, ‘I want extra space for 20 pupils’. We always start with a wider perspective and say, ‘Actually, don’t build a £30 million building, put £10 million there, put £5 million into teaching and £5 million to unlock another series of buildings. ‘You’ve got £30 million − design a building’, is one way of creating architecture but it’s not a holistic way.

CH: It’s a very interesting time in education. You can explore ideas, such as the relationship between technology and research and how people work. Today it’s about collaboration, about kids working in teams on projects. We need to plan for more project-based learning because that’s what we know these kids are going to have to do, because their jobs haven’t been invented yet. So why educate them for our past? Children need to have a variety of experiences so they can find their passions, so they can see what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. So how do they learn those things and how do they do those things and what are the spaces going to look like?

OR: When your school was built in the 1970s, it was built with clusters of classrooms around a central resource area. Originally there were five classrooms but within a year people put up partitions. I wonder now whether the kids could actually cope with it 40 years on, if you took the partitions down?

CH: As well as freedom and autonomy and the development of an individual perspective, children also look for a community. The best part about the pods at the American School is that in a big building they give pupils a sense of, ‘This is who we are, this is where we are.’

KH: A lot of students’ learning happens outside buildings but there are universities that have sort of so-called ‘learning spaces’, where students just perch on some elegant piece of furniture, with their iPad. But I’m not sure that that really works either. However the need for community still holds true for universities. Students will search for free knowledge that is widely available. Some of them are quite able to discern what is worth having and some are not. For a lot of students the limitless availability of material is completely confusing. They need to learn to discriminate between good information and stuff they just copy. I’d say that’s a very big part of the challenge that we face at the moment. But architecture is a model of learning that encourages reflective practice.

OR: Another issue is the availability of external space. I wondered how much a lack of external space, the requirement to move around town, as opposed to being on your own campus between shared facilities, really mattered and as educators whether that would worry you?

CH: So you’re asking how important it is, proximity?

RK: And also green space. I was amazed when I started looking at schools for my children. It’s a given that there won’t be a playing field, it will be a tarmac space.

OR: But is this going to deprive our next generation of kids or will they actually rise to the challenge and do something different and become urban kids? There are lots of retail units around the edges of towns that are going to be empty in the next 10 years. Would it be better to put aschool there, where you’ve presently got a big car park, and you have to bus the kids to school? Or would it be better to have an urban school right in the middle of where people are living? How much do these things matter?

KH: I think we all need some space, so it’s not just schools. It seems one of the things we haven’t talked about is how the planning process might be a bit helpful in predicting when new schools are going to be needed. So London’s population’s been growing but their number of schools has to follow the measurement of the growth rather than anticipated growth. If you think about the proposed new changes in planning legislation with housing estates popping up in the green belt or in other bits of green space, there’s absolutely no mention of schools. There needs to be more integrated thought about the relationship between communities and schools.

DM: This goes back to the idea about knowledge being free, in that I think that in London in particular, as the provision for green and open spaces is pretty remarkable but people don’t actually make use of them …

OR: In the 19th century there were often playgrounds on school roofs.

DM: … but it’s something that could make quite a remarkable difference in a city as dense as London. It’s about freedom of knowledge but also being able to access it, which might mean that it’s not free, that you have to be inculcated or educated to make use of knowledge. There are architectural issues here but they’re not getting that much air-play. The education debate seems to be quite siloed, going on within a certain area. Then there are young parents. I have a four-year-old son, so we’re starting to think now about his next role within education. We weren’t thinking about that two years ago.


Steiner school, an example of a school with a strong philosophy expressed through its environment

Models for Model Schools

The relationship beteween good new architecture and the public perception of a particular school is not always clear cut. Some schools still retain the social stigma of being ‘bad’ schools, despite their impressive new buildings. Conversely, unexceptional architecture (and committed teaching staff) can sustain a school community and inculcate a positive educational spirit.

CH: Choosing a school, whether it’s a free school or a fee-paying school is so much a reflection of a parent’s life view and philosophy. As an educator, I want great, consistent programmes, delivered by caring, passionate teachers. So I only want people to come to the school that I run because we have a similar view. If the parent wants what I’m giving then it’s going to work because there’s an alignment, a school/home partnership. And the building is secondary. The American School in London is ugly as sin. But inside it’s an art show and it has great facilities and kids can play and learn music and the concerts are great and the athletics are fun and learning is exciting.

PD: In Hackney, the Building Schools for the Future PFI initiative has spent considerable resources on new Academy buildings, using renowned architects. One of them is now known to be one of the best secondary schools in the country, but others aren’t by any stretch. They’ve just got really fancy buildings. So there’s this interesting backlash from parents going, ‘Well, we can see that they’ve spent tens of millions on that but I still wouldn’t want to send my kids there because it’s still a terrifying school.’

DM: Teaching is key but I think that the quality of the architecture is also key; it’s essential.

CH: Form does have to follow function but I just think that function also has to be of high quality. You do have to have good facilities, and we still don’t spend money on facilities.

DM: The model of some of the new Scandinavian schools is interesting, they’ve taken on board IT and it’s engendered another way of thinking about children occupying space and interacting with one another. I agree, I think there should be all kinds of different provisions but I do think that the architecture is kind of essential here.

JM: This is quite interesting, how the philosophy of the school impacts on its design. Isn’t it important that the environment should be embracing that philosophy? If you think of Steiner schools, the Steiner environment is very aligned with the philosophy of Steiner teaching. Things such as desks and colour and the shapes and the movement and the space are all intrinsic.

KH: Architects are still extremely good at having an overview and helping to realise people’s ideas long before anything becomes an artefact.

PD: We are lucky because one of the founders of our free school is an architect, so at least we can have some discussion among ourselves, but our ability to influence that decision is really slight. Most of the time we’re deliberately kept out of the discussion.

DM: What you’re both saying is very interesting in that there’s a generally shared perception, particularly within the UK, that there’s been this major programme of schools building, but the architects probably haven’t been all that involved in the wider discussion behind planning and commissioning of that new stock.

KH: We should learn from what’s been done before and we’re incredibly bad at that; post-occupancy evaluation.


Opened in 2004, the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners was emblematic of a drive to improve educational standards in a deprived London borough, with architecture duly playing its part

Are Libraries Dead?

The impact of digital technology in the classroom has irrevocably shifted the dynamics of teaching and learning. How does this affect and transform traditional spaces for study such as libraries? And how is the fact that information is now free changing buildings for education?

OR: The younger generation has taken a leap forward because of the advent of digital technology. Do we need libraries any more, if information is free?

CH: You don’t need computer labs but you do need libraries − but how many books are in the library, is the question.

OR: So I do think there is a new platform of opportunity because kids are more flexible than ever before and are going to become more so.

KH: I’m just thinking of the SANAA building at EPFL in Lausanne which is a library but actually everything you see is completely curling spaces and you can’t put down chairs because the floors aren’t flat, so it’s all bean-bags and iPads. But below ground are the books, so they have got them both.

DM: I think the British Library is also rather remarkable in its aspiration. It’s now turned into a space where people seemingly hang out, you can’t get a cubicle in the reading rooms very easily, unless you get in there very early. But people go there to socialise and they are involved in learning. It’s all about education. You have this huge stack of historic books, the King’s Library, something that digital technology can’t possibly emulate, but all around this great accumulation of books there are also people working on iPads.

KH: Computers, yes. But then architecture in all of the things we’ve just been talking about is absolutely key.

JM: Just last week we were on a trip to Denmark and we went to a school to look at science laboratories. Interestingly, the way that that building had been developed was essentially rectangular, on plan, with a very simple, functional facade. In the centre were the labs, with all the formal teaching spaces around the perimeter. Inside this giant space you had a series of almost counsel-like chambers, and through this they’d created a vibrant community. You would walk between the chambers, with acoustic lining on every horizontal surface, and everybody was just milling around and through this space. They also had mobile blackboards and they were teaching in it. So there were 500 people around you, but because of the layout and acoustics, you’d have no idea. It was truly brilliant because you saw things happening. There were groups of people together, there were people on iPads, there were people with their blackboards and it had a fantastic and engaged community feel. I just thought there was something magical about that sense of bringing together, the use of technology and the interaction with people.


The King’s Library at the British Library in London. Studious nomads with laptops and iPads are dwarfed by the impressive (but increasingly redundant) physicality of George III’s historic book collection

The Potential of Reuse

Models of development from other sectors can be useful in advancing debate and suggesting new ideas. The imaginative reuse of existing buildings provides architectural and pedagogical opportunities

OR: We’re also doing some research on Generation Y, in relation to office buildings. The Tea Building in Shoreditch is an exemplar for how expectations of the younger generation are now being met by quite gritty, industrial buildings, which form different sorts of office environments. It’s changed the whole perception of what an office should be now and what it should be used for.

CH: Look at the Bay School in San Francisco, which is an old army barracks converted to a school, very successfully. I think architects are going to be more necessary because spaces are not necessarily going to be built for schools but you’ve got to make schools work in those spaces.

JM: But I think the key for us as a profession is that we’re pre-programmed to break rules, as architects. We go around every day, analysing and breaking rules; we can do that and we need to align ourselves with the people that will support the breaking of the rules.

OR: Is anyone doing some sensible research into what makes a good educational environment, that you know
of, any architectural research?

KH: In the past there has been quite a lot. But with the Schools for the Future programme, for instance, all the effort seemed to go into designing certain exemplar schools. Now I think there is a sense of disappointment because this couldn’t be followed through in any meaningful way. A lot of things were stopped part-way and there was little evaluation of how effective those new schools really were. Some will turn out to be quite good and some will turn out to be quite bad, and we should be able to learn from both. At present one of the interesting growth areas in architecture at my college is what we call ‘interior architecture’, which presupposes that all designers are going to be doing is working with and modifying existing buildings to accommodate new uses.

JM: We have a number of interior architecture trained people and it is interesting that the thought process is different to the traditionally trained architect − they are looking at personal experience in an environment and how it’s created internally.

KH: One thing we haven’t talked about: we’ve talked about schools needing more places than exist, but with universities it’s the opposite. Because of demographic changes, there will be fewer and for the next five years there will be smaller numbers of 18 year olds. Therefore the great challenge that faces universities is what else can they do, apart from teaching standard degree courses. I don’t get the impression that it has been considered at all, yet it has profound implications.

JM: No, but interestingly, in 18 years’ time …

KH: Suddenly there’s going to be a change again. So I think that the coincidence of there being fewer 18 year olds and because of the new fee systems, it’ll put this huge pressure on UK universities.


Proposal for a new swimming pool at the American School in London by ORMS

Encouraging Entrepreneurship

The discussion concluded with the idea of school and college buildings becoming flexible armatures for various activities beyond their immediate institutional demands. As well as economic advantages, this also serves to embed them more intimately within the wider community

DM: So do UK universities need to find alternative uses?

KH: Or devise other forms of how education will be beyond the traditional pattern of somebody going to university immediately after school and then having a career for life. People now move around more and change their careers and it might be that higher education has to be able to adapt in response.

OR: This might presumably involve more emphasis on things such as distance learning?

KH: A lot more distance learning. But going back to the experience of the Open University, what they found quite early on was that while you could do everything through the radio or television, there was also a need for groups of people to get together, so they then invented their summer school system.

OR: So programming will become much more complex?

JM: If there existed the capacity to have some aspects of schooling within a university environment, it would then hopefully encourage pupils to go on to the university environment after school.

DM: It’s a change of thinking, isn’t it? I mean, in terms of the university stock, people don’t tend to think like that. They think that it’s there for a purpose and I suppose in some cases, like laboratories, it is. But there are also other precedents, such as the Ideas Stores. In Vancouver there have been some interesting initiatives with new sports buildings, partly on the back of the Olympics. They had been built as community centres but would then become libraries, as well as swimming pools and leisure centres, sometimes offering medical provision. Universities need
to change their thinking in terms of what they can do.

OR: The ability for buildings to evolve and happily contain different types of uses is going to be more fundamental. The traditional mono-cultural use of buildings seems to be breaking down and we will all have to be prepared for this.

KH: Yes, absolutely, and encourage the multi-use of space that was once built for a particular purpose.

RK: That’s what my school’s getting very excited about. As a state school they don’t really have any means of earning money, so we’ve been looking how this might work. There are a couple of buildings on our site, which have separate entrances, so this deals with the security issues and allows people to use the buildings at weekends and evenings. As a result of the increased income, they can now afford that fantastic bit of playground equipment that previously they hadn’t been able to get funding for.

KH: It does mean we all have to think in a much more entrepreneurial way. At the University of Westminster, we have a space which was the old engineering construction hall (when we had an engineering school) and it was closed. Then people realised that it was a fantastic space and worked out the various things that could happen in it. Then we also realised that we could, for very little money, refurbish it sufficiently, so it was safe. I said, ‘We can run this space to be self funding by letting it commercially for a third of the year, for another third of the year we’ll have programmes and for another third the university can use it for things like exams’, otherwise they’d have to pay rent to exam boards. It’s now working but I can feel that people are still deeply suspicious of what could be a new hybridised way of operating.

JM: I’ve taken quite a few things out of this discussion, notably how technology is changing the way that people interact but also may be taught. This give you a completely different set of parameters for a building and a building type. Another issue is the potential of the independent school sector. They have buildings, they have the ethos, they have the history and the power to make decisions far more quickly. It’s also about schools linking up with universities to maximise the use of buildings. Again, it’s about shifting that mindset.


Having designed a series of additions to Uppingham School, ORMS are currently working on a new ‘destination’ Science Block. The L-shaped building forms a quad that physically and intellectually connects science with other subjects, such as sport, art drama and mathematics

The Hosts

Oliver Richards (OR) founded ORMS in 1984, and his skills in balancing the visionary qualities of design with practicality and cost consciousness are central to the philosophy of the practice

John McRae (JM) is an Equity Director of ORMS and chief instigator of the Think initiative which reflects his own passion for creating a built environment closely informed by the users’ well-being

Richard Keating (RK) joined ORMS in 2005, was made an Associate in 2008 and Associate Director in 2010. His focus within the practice is on the Education and Commercial sectors and he also heads up its technical workshops and reviews. He is a Governor at Woodside School, Walthamstow

The Guests

Phillippa De’Ath (PD) is Programme Director and co-founder of Hackney New School, opening in September 2013. She has 10 years’ experience in technology, business strategy and recruitment at IBM, after a short spell in the live music industry

Kate Heron (KH) is Head of Architecture at the University of Westminster and Director of Ambika P3. Her background is in practice
as Feary + Heron Architects, and in the arts. She is a past chair of SCHOSA. She has taught and been an external examiner in many UK schools of architecture, and an advisor to the EPFL in Lausanne. Most recently she has joined a Europe-wide consortium of seven schools of architecture known as ADAPT-r which has EU funding to develop an international training network of researchers based in ‘venturous practice’, and to expand the established RMIT PhD programme of research by practice

Coreen Hester (CH) is Head of School at the American School in London (ASL). She taught English literature and writing before she began her career as an administrator in independent schools in the US. She was High School Principal at the ASL 1995-97, and Head of School at the Hamlin School in San Francisco for 10 years, before returning to the ASL in 2007

Duncan McCorquodale (DM) established Black Dog Publishing, a London-based book publisher noted for its fresh, eclectic perspective on contemporary culture. He also founded Artifice books on architecture. He originally studied History and Theory of Architecture at the Architectural Association and following graduation taught at the Bartlett School of Architecture


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