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Rethink: What has Covid-19 taught us about designing schools?

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Pamela Buxton

How best to spend the government’s £1bn school building bonanza? Four sets of priorities range from better access and bigger spaces to flexibility and promoting hygiene

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have been balancing safe ways to teach vulnerable and key-worker children with on-line teaching. But it’s only now, as schools re-set once more and brace themselves for the return of the whole school population in September, that school buildings face their real acid test.

Clearly some buildings are better placed to accommodate the required safety protocols than others. Those with flexible space, generous circulation areas and ample room externally with the potential for outside teaching will fare the best to enable safe movement around the school and make it easier to limit interactions between class or year ‘bubbles’. Yet over the last decade, these are the very characteristics that have all too often been squeezed following the demise of the Schools for the Future programme in 2010, and the advent of more austere funding measures for new school buildings.

Meanwhile, as schools grapple with making a safe learning environment in the buildings they’ve got, the government has announced a £1billion ‘transformative’ school rebuilding programme. While details will not be available until after the 2020 Spending Review later in the year, the plan is to start with 50 schools in the greatest need of repair, with construction on the first projects expected to start in autumn 2021.

While the programme has been welcomed by the Association of School and College Leaders, it feels there is still a long way to go.

‘The fact is that we still have far too many children taught in older buildings which are cramped and poorly ventilated, and there is a lot of ground to be made up in terms of capital spending,’ says ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton, who feels that much has been learned in terms of school design from Covid-19.

‘In short, it has shown that we need to have plenty of airy, well-ventilated spaces, that are large enough to allow learning and movement around the site to take place while maintaining some sense of social distancing. Equally, we have also seen the importance of having ample outdoors space, which can be used for teaching and activities, and take pressure off the indoor environment,’ he says.

Below, we talk to school design experts about what impact they feel Covid-19 will have on school buildings in the long term. The importance of flexibility is a recurring theme, along with the need to revise the Building Bulletins that govern school design standards

Flexibility should not be seen as a luxury, believes Meryl Townley of van Heyningen and Haward Architects. dRMM’s Philip Marsh sees scope for the use of outdoor classrooms as well as flexible-use creative halls. Hampshire County Council’s Bob Wallbridge feels that post-Covid challenges for school design will be best faced by taking a holistic, whole life approach with integrated design teams and close client involvement. AHMM’s Paul Monaghan called for a strong vision for the new school rebuilding programme in order to seize the opportunity to deliver exemplary, sustainable, design.


Credit: Kinga Koren

Philip Marsh is a director of dRMM Architects

Short term changes to how schools operate in response to Covid-19 are already being implemented, with a focus on hygiene, compartmentalisation of groups within the school as ‘bubbles’, staggered timetables to reduce congestion and maximising available space.

Looking further ahead, I’m sure that in all new school designs, senior management teams will be far more focused on Covid-related themes such as a greater emphasis on the movement of pupils around the school, environmental conditions and hygiene. 

The big challenge longer term will be seeking a partial relaxation of the prescriptive nature of the Building Bulletins that define area and acoustic requirements. Only in this way will designers be able to develop new types of additional space that are less controlled and allow more flexibility.

If there isn’t going to be any additional scope to build extra space to improve social distancing in schools, we have to think differently. One approach is to extend learning outside the classrooms into the landscape by providing alternative space free from the constraints of current Building Bulletin standards. We recently made a proposal for a new primary school which includes outdoor classrooms that are a contemporary version of Jan Duiker’s 1927 Open Air School; this was built in Amsterdam to help physically weak children gain strength with the help of sun and fresh air. These classrooms could be orientated to the south for solar gain, and make some concession to comfort with a simple glazed façade and canopy. As well as having the benefit of getting the children out into the landscape, such low-cost spaces will free up more room within schools.

Another way forward is to lobby the Department for Education to accept a more flexible approach to school design to reduce capital cost per metre squared, and increase area as a result. Inherent flexibility should be designed into all new schools so that they can be stripped back and reconfigured to suit the latest educational thinking. Measures could include a single volume, flexible ‘creative hall’ that could serve for a range of uses from art classes, to design technology, food tech or performance space. This could be a low-tech, glulam portal frame building with a simple roof and walls.

We need to re-evaluate the environmental design of teaching spaces. I would like to see a greater emphasis on delivering exemplary design standards with better naturally-lit and well-ventilated spaces, rather than just achieving compliance.

Currently, we have extremes from each end of the spectrum, from the utilitarian, public hygiene-focused Victorian Board Schools which maximised light, ventilation and volume, to the hermetically-sealed, acoustically quiet, mechanically ventilated and artificially lit classrooms of the 2020s. These environmental controls, introduced in an endeavour to improve learning, add cost and complexity to every capital project, with maintenance costs that take money away from the core activity of education. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to create a post-Covid school typology somewhere between the two, with a range of spaces including both heavily serviced and acoustically controlled boxes and more simplistic, low-tech rooms.

The main environmental focus should be on naturalness: light (excellent), temperature (cooler), air quality (large volume and good air changes), acoustic (internal and external) and connection to nature – basically just good design. But unfortunately many new classrooms are instead single aspect and deep plan, leading to more reliance on artificial lighting. In our new, engineered timber school for Wintringham Primary Academy in Cambridgeshire, the classrooms are designed to be triple aspect, which allows for the potential for cross-plan ventilation.

There may be an even greater focus on what materials we put into our schools. Taking reference from hospitals, we should select materials that are easy to clean and hygienic. Carpet is often the preferred material in schools as it is easy to maintain, forgiving, cost effective and improves acoustic absorption. But we should instead consider materials that are more environmentally sensitive and have natural bacteria-killing properties such as linoleum. Schools will also be re-evaluating their use of soft furnishings, such as the comfy chair for the story area.

There are plenty of other potential changes. A free flow of space and movement should be encouraged, by reducing contact with handles and push bars. Corridor doors that suffer the greatest wear and tear should all be held open, and doors on toilet clusters should be removed. The physical and authoritative segregation that exists between pupil and staff areas could also disappear. Maybe we’ll see a return to the Board School specification of wash basins lining the circulation spaces.

The opportunity to build new schools is exciting, as the demise of the overly ambitious BSF programme has led to very constrained school funding in recent years. Apart from demanding a better standard of teaching environment, we should be building to a high quality so that the 50 or so new schools benefit from longevity and minimise the annual maintenance cost for the local authority.

Greater focus on the importance of Covid-19 precautions will immediately raise the bar for design, including the need for space to work even harder. I think it could be really exciting.

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Paul Monaghan, partner, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

In the short term, every school will have to adjust to meet the government’s new operational guidelines. Those that were designed to meet Building Bulletin 98 standards, rather than the less spatially-generous Building Bulletin 103 that superseded it, will certainly find it easier.

I recently spoke to Howard Jackson, deputy principal of Burntwood School in Tooting, south London, which we completed in 2014, to find out how it is adapting to the new way of operating. He thinks it will work very well in terms of being able to operate in bubbles of year groups, with enough classrooms, toilets and other facilities to accommodate one year group on each floor, with the children staying put in one classroom and just the teachers moving around. Because it was designed to BB98 guidelines, it has more generous corridors, which also helps.

Longer term, there will generally need to be more thought given to the environmental engineering of school buildings and in particular how we get fresh air in using natural ventilation – air change will be key. Consideration of hygiene and surfaces will also be important in the future.

Generosity of circulation spaces is definitely an issue. I’d like to see the spatial guidelines of BB103 increased by 5-10% to give more scope for this. I think we may see more ‘schools within schools’ approaches – like there is at our ARK All Saints Academy in Southwark, London – to ensure more separation of years, and also more consideration of multiple entrances and circulation systems. At Westminster Academy we designed toilet areas with two doors at opposite ends. While this was primarily for bullying reasons, it works well in the current situation.

I’d also really like to see some of the thinking that goes into office design going into schools, including more flexibility to change room configurations and settings. We don’t know yet what the impact of technology changes will be on the future on school design, but we’ll definitely need to think about the role of flexibility here.

The government’s new school rebuilding plan is an opportunity to make a statement about what the future of education could be, rather than just making functional buildings. It’s going to be a big programme – if each school costs £20million, that’s 50 new schools. I’d like to see the government be really ambitious and set out a manifesto for what schools should be like.

BB98 embodied the idea of a school being aspirational –a real community hub. That was reversed in 2010 in favour of building cheaply and in standardised ways. I’d like to think we could get back to something more like the aspirational approach of the Building Schools for the Future programme. We all know that school design plays a part in improving school performances. 

And if the government is spending £1bn, it needs to be getting buildings with an excellent sustainability performance out of it. These should be exemplary and really leading the green agenda, rather than just doing enough to get over the line.

Credit: Peter Hansen

Meryl Townley is a partner at van Heyningen and Haward Architects, and RIBA education ambassador

In the short term, schools are managing the situation within their premises for the return of all students in the autumn term. One of our schools is considering temporary accommodation, but most are working with what they’ve got – certainly you want to avoid making short-term changes to buildings that don’t add value to the school in the future. That’s where thoughtful advice from experienced architects is able to help by creatively using existing areas to facilitate better learning, and to keep everyone safe.

For us, there will be an initial impact on the consultation that goes into developing the design brief for school projects. Visiting schools in action is really important for understanding what works well and what doesn’t. That consultation will inevitably be restricted, as schools won’t be operating in a normal situation, and under current pressures teachers and students may be reluctant to embrace the potential of teaching in new ways. But we will find different ways of engaging with schools, using digital ways of presenting and engaging, in the same way that schools have used the opportunities of digital learning during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Longer term, I hope there would be a greater appreciation that the tightness of spaces that arises from designing to Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) guidelines makes it harder for schools to cope with unforeseen problems such as Covid-19. Flexibility shouldn’t be a luxury, it’s crucial to be able to adapt to the inevitable changes in curriculum and evolving pedagogy to bring out the best in students and staff, and to respond to the unforeseen circumstances of today.

It’s not only classroom areas that would benefit from more than the minimum, it’s the in-between spaces for informal learning and quiet places, which are especially important to students who have found this lacking when working remotely due to Covid-19.

At vHH, we design wherever possible to include a variety of spaces for different ways of learning that lend themselves for flexible use in the future. When we re-visited our community school in Barking Riverside, many of the staff and pupils told us that the loose-fit ‘extra’ spaces are the favourite bits of the building, as they allow for imaginative teaching and learning.

Being optimistic, I hope it might be easier now to do this sort of thing as well as to include a greater generosity of circulation, in that we won’t have to fight these corners so hard as it will now be more appreciated. This follows recent feedback from vHH’s primary school for St Gabriel’s, Rugby, where the corridor is very wide and classrooms have direct access to play space. This has made the return much easier in the current climate than in other schools, as it is more possible to enable social distancing. But it will require an adjustment to the current guidelines to provide a little more flexibility in the ESFA rules, to squeeze in a bit more space for informal learning and circulation and to get the best value from the funds available, to meet the aspirations of each school.

I also believe that the value of external spaces, and the importance of nature and exercise, are now fully acknowledged as being intrinsic to wellbeing as a result of Covid-19.  These spaces, which are often compromised, must be held onto within the briefs for schools and their use maximised. Even on a challenging urban site such as that for Bow School, we maximised and protected the external landscape, which was accessed directly off the dining hall with multi use sports pitches designed on the rooftop.

The independent sector has continued to embrace more generous spatial parameters than state schools in terms of classroom sizes, breakout spaces, circulation and extensive external space. As a result, they are in a better position to cope with the Covid-19 restrictions. They were also much better set up with remote digital learning, and that inequality has widened in this period.

As for the new school building programme, I do worry that it will be just about repair. There’s no detail on it yet and it will be vital to know how it will be allocated, and among other things whether there will be recognition of varying local needs.

I’d be wary of expensive, automatic, anti-bacterial measures with the potential for ongoing running costs. All materials should be robust and long lasting and easy to maintain and clean. This is one of our integral design principles, and we’re really seeing the added benefit of it in this situation.

I hope the current situation has highlighted the huge benefits that even modest additional allowances for extra breathing space can make, and that this will inspire the government to allow for a more ambitious approach in the future.

Bob Wallbridge is strategic manager at Hampshire County Council Property Services

As Hampshire schools remained open, first for vulnerable and key worker children and then later, for the phased return of priority year groups, our Property Services team helped some with some of the more pragmatic issues such as routing and signage. But generally schools have been able, with their many different types of buildings, to manage their response to the government guidelines themselves, with support from the County Council’s Children’s Services Department.

Will Covid-19 change the way schools are designed in the future? I think the jury is still out on that – it depends on whether and when a vaccine is developed. I am concerned right now that the significant economic impact of the pandemic shouldn’t be under-estimated – for change to happen, you need the investment in school buildings to keep the work flowing.

I’m reasonably positive about investment opportunities in Hampshire for new and existing schools. For instance, we need to deal with the legacy of the post-war system building. We have more than 2,000 buildings that were put up since the 1960s. As they are steel-framed, they are fairly adaptable in spatial terms. In many ways, a long life, loose-fit approach can accommodate changes in ways of learning and things can be moved around during the lifetime of a building. This could be particularly helpful when dealing with the challenges of today. But the external fabric of these buildings all needs updating. There is an opportunity now to accelerate dealing with their condition. We’d like to make the case for funding as part of the school rebuilding programme for some of that work, as we have tried and tested methods for dealing with such structures.

But it’s still very early days. The understanding in relation to Covid-19 is still evolving and it’s not yet clear what you’d need to do physically in buildings to make things work better in response. I don’t think we’re yet in a place where we could justify significant changes in design or specifications.

I think the sensible approach, for now, is to continue on the principles of a well-planned school environment with good daylight and good ventilation. In Hampshire, these principles have always stood us in good stead. We see a causal link between a well-designed building and a sense of belonging and wellbeing for pupils and their educational attainment. Looking a few years ahead, I’d like to hope that the sense of community and social value of schools would be increasingly recognised, particularly given our current physical isolation in this pandemic. And we should remember that schools aren’t just about the buildings. There’s also the landscape, and maybe that’s something that we can also focus more on post-Covid-19.

The earlier you get the people who will be responsible for the running of the school and the building involved in the process of design, the better. At Hampshire County Council, we are often the client, designer and landowner, so we are involved at every stage. This provides a holistic whole life approach that I am pleased to see RIBA adopting in its ‘plan for use’ and this can only help post-Covid, from inception right down to the practical detail of how you might need to introduce more hygienic and easy to clean surfaces. In terms of sustainability, our focus is on reducing carbon and on dealing with a potential two-degree rise in temperature. We do want to continue to be exemplary and pioneering when we build new schools. However, we do this at a rate of only one or two a year, at best, so I am equally passionate about re-use and innovation in adapting and maintaining Hampshire’s 500+ existing schools too.

It helps that we have integrated design teams and that we are still having conversations directly with our clients, our schools and our contractors – with everyone engaged and working together to the same end. As designers, it is exciting to be invited to the table with educationalists, planners and landowners at the earliest stages of creating and investing in new schools across Hampshire, and looking at how these can be the central part of a placemaking strategy. We’ve always seen the benefit of this approach, and at this time I would definitely advocate clients and designers adopting this more holistic and inclusive way of working as I am pretty sure it will become even more important to us all in our post-pandemic world.

For more on rethinking sectors, buildings and the urban realm following the pandemic see


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