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Rising school rolls see architects turn a new page

Josephine Smit

In the rush to create more secondary capacity, schools are featuring mixed use developments and their premises are doubling up for other community uses.

Ayr Grammar: The proposal is learning from BDP's Waid Community Campus.
Ayr Grammar: The proposal is learning from BDP's Waid Community Campus.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then we ought to be building some of the most inventive and radical schools ever seen in the UK right now. The necessity is for school places – low cost and fast. A population surge that saw an extra 600,000 primary school places created over the past eight years is now inevitably putting pressure on secondaries, as the Local Government Association, which represents councils across England and Wales, has reported.

The government’s austerity budgeting and standardised procurement have driven invention, of sorts, in the converted office blocks and modular buildings being created for free schools. But under their direction, innovative and inspiring learning environments are becoming a rarity rather than the norm.

So it is worth considering another way of making the difficult financial proposition of modern day school development stack up, which is to marry schools with other uses. Education-led mixed use embraces a number of variations on a theme, with the capital seeing schemes that mostly match schools with homes. Away from London a different model is emerging in the school hub, which follows in the footsteps of Cambridgeshire chief education officer Henry Morris, who almost a century ago conceived the multi-purpose village college to serve rural communities in the county. The two are very different but equally pragmatic responses to economic constraints, and they are challenging educationalists’ and local communities’ perceptions of what a school should be.

City limits
Why create a gym in a private rented housing scheme when there will be one next door in a school? Why move teachers around a school rather than pupils? These are the kind of questions that should be asked, but all too often aren’t, says Lee Mainwaring, design director with Architecture Initiative. 'In the UK we are only just scratching the surface of what’s possible,' he says. Mainwaring’s practice has explored possibilities including a primary school above a supermarket, a secondary school with high rise apartments above and even converting an office tower to an all-through school (see box below).

Such ideas have grown out of London’s shortage of available, affordable land. 'Free schools may have to compete with residential developers, so they have to think uniquely,' explains Mainwaring. The government’s LocatED property business, which acquires land and buildings for free schools, was looking for 20 sites across the capital this autumn. Typical of Architecture Initiative's London schemes is Kingston Community School, a 420-place primary alongside 19 homes on a tight site in Norbiton, south west London. The linear school adjoins the residential corner block, each distinct and with its own entrance. There is no outside space at ground level, so the design has an underground sports hall and a rooftop playground, but Mainwaring says that doesn’t mean the quality of the environment is compromised. 'These schemes are always education led. When you have the constraint of an urban site, the first thought is where is the best place for the sports hall. As this is a small site and the hall doesn’t need daylight, the best solution was underground.' 

Such innovation needs to be explained, Mainwaring accepts, through more community consultation and more dialogue with a school. 'You have to ensure the school and governors are comfortable. It may require changes like having lunchtime sittings to reduce the size of the refectory, or varying break times to suit playground size.' Any negativity about proposals, he adds, 'comes from people thinking it is a private development, and that it is only the residential component that is higher quality. In fact, these are holistically driven regeneration projects.'

Amir Ramezani, director with Avanti, also points to the regeneration potential of education-led mixed use. 'Where ground floor retail is not working and use needs a rethink this is a good typology,' he says. The architect is working with Hackney Council on The Makers in Shoreditch, a scheme where added housing will help fund future schools and off-site affordable housing. It will see a pupil referral unit replaced with a low-level school plus 175 homes, the latter in a seven storey linear block and a 29 storey tower above a two storey podium. The prominent site was in serious need of remedial action, says Ramezani. 'It had a single storey school, permeability had gone and an alleyway ran through the site, which had anti-social behaviour issues.'

  • Kingston Community school in Norbiton, south London, by Architecture Initiative.
    Kingston Community school in Norbiton, south London, by Architecture Initiative.
  • Architecture Initiative's feasibility study for converting an existing office building into a school.
    Architecture Initiative's feasibility study for converting an existing office building into a school.

The design is set back from the edge of the site and incorporates new public realm, as well as amenity space at ground level for the school. 'We believe schools need a direct relationship with the ground – and it’s good for staff management,' says Ramezani. The architect also worked to orientate homes and school so that the former’s balconies would not overlook the latter.

Separation does not only apply to the different uses, but within the school itself, as this alternative provision is for temporary attendees, such as those who lack a permanent place or are excluded, and cohorts may need to be kept apart. Classrooms are therefore set around a courtyard, with groups accommodated on different sides, while the dining room has a central kitchen servicing two dining spaces from separate serveries. 'It goes against all the things you would normally do,' says Ramezani. Some of the school’s sports facilities will also be made accessible to the community, albeit under fairly controlled conditions.

Civic studies
The vision of Henry Morris in breaking down barriers between school and neighbourhood for all-round community benefit is finding fresh expression in schemes like Waid Community Campus, in the Fife town of Anstruther. The secondary school is designed for civic service, and evolved following discussions between its architect, BDP, and a host of local authority departments. Walk through the main entrance – designed to be welcoming, even for those who remember school days unfondly – and you could head to the school, community café, library or adult education space. The atrium includes ICT-rich workspace for the use of students and for former students starting up businesses. 'The school is intended to provide a seamless transition from school to work,' explains Colin Allan, who was architect director for BDP on the project. A school hall serves as the town hall and hosts evening cinema shows. The police service has an office there and the NHS is coming.

The building housing all this is far from spacious. 'The area had to be kept tight on cost; this didn’t have a generous budget,' says Allan. The funding formula of the Scottish Futures Trust, the Scottish government’s delivery body, was based on an area allowance of 12m² per pupil. 'But for this we were asked to work to 10m2,' says Allan. 'That was a big challenge and we thought we’d lose social space. We avoided corridors and used space to capacity.' It means teachers even have to book rooms for their lessons, rather than having one allocated. The school opened in 2017, has recorded 1700 adult visits to date and is home to many activities. 'You always worry that you create potential that won’t be adopted, but the feedback has been great,' says Allan. 

The project’s learning is now informing plans to transform the listed Ayr Grammar building to accommodate a primary school, plus local archive and arts centre and a registry office. Again the scheme’s potential goes beyond the provision of school space, as it promises to improve street connections and – through its architecture and its activities – engage citizens with their heritage. 'These facilities are good value,' stresses Allan. 'There is always the danger that you put the goodies into one building and others close down. For some elderly people, it can be a trip to get to Waid, but there was no other site large enough in the town. If you didn’t have a facility like that, the library would be in the next town, or in a van.' 


Architecture Initiative’s feasibility study looked at how an office tower could be converted entirely for educational use, as an all-through school. The primary occupies the lower seven levels, with its own sky garden at the eighth and ninth floors. Above that, is the secondary school’s learning resource centre with ICT-rich spaces and flexible furniture. This is topped by secondary school classrooms, sixth form and roof terrace. 

As the structural grid of the building prevents the insertion of large column-free spaces for sports and drama at lower levels, the architect’s solution is to remove two storeys higher up the building and replace them with a theatre topped by a sports hall. Above is a multi-use games area.

Movement of pupils through the school day is a big challenge for the vertical school. As an office, this building housed 2,000 workers, who came to and from their desk each day using five lifts. As a school, it would have fewer pupils but they would be moving from class to class. Consequently, the primary would be served by three oversized lifts, and the secondary and sixth form by five high speed lifts. 



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