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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove's standardised schools not such a class act
Oakfield primary in Rugby is the first of a new wave of templated structures for our children's education. It's a shame, then, that it resembles nothing so much as a modified shopping shed
The words "standardised schools" can send a chill down the spine. They conjure the idea of children being treated as units in a distribution warehouse, as bricks in a wall, as products on a Tesco shelf. It doesn't make one feel better when Michael Gove backs them, as part of his campaign to exclude architecture from education. Early in his term of office, he commissioned the James review, in which senior executives from Mothercare, Tesco and Dixons decided it would be a good thing if schools were built more like retail units.
But standardised schools don't have to be sinister. London is furnished with graceful, airy buildings with generous windows and brick details of simple dignity, constructed in their hundreds to meet the need that arose after the introduction of universal education in 1870. Created under the guidance of the architect Edward Robert Robson, they are standardised but adaptable to different city sites, and when they stop being schools they have converted easily into desirable apartments and studios.
In Hertfordshire after the second world war a series of elegant, light-filled schools were created in the face of low budgets and shortages of materials. In the state and city of Rio de Janeiro, in the 1980s, Oscar Niemeyer directed a programme of 500 standard school buildings that bring a sense of pride, both to the idea of public education and to the places where they are built.
Now, at Oakfield primary school in Rugby, the first of a new wave of standardised schools has been completed. It's part of a brand called Sunesis, created by the contractors Willmott Dixon in partnership with Scape, which is a company owned by six local authorities to make construction processes more efficient. The Sunesis idea happily coincides with the drive to build schools ever cheaper and faster. About 20 are at various stages of development, and it's reasonable to expect that many more education spaces of the future will look like this. Willmott Dixon say they can build schools "up to" 30% cheaper and 12 months faster than "the alternatives", which sounds like a compelling argument.
Sunesis offers a range of types to suit different situations, each named after a different inspirational hero – Newton, Keynes, Paxton, Dewey. Schools can choose the option that suits them, with the help of online interactive plans. "You can plan your school sitting in front of the TV on a Thursday night," says Jerry Major of Willmott Dixon. You have three options for the external walls – brick, cedar or render. Major also compares it to buying a car – you choose your model and decide if you want a sunroof or not.
The Oakfield building is a Keynes, a low, plain shed with classrooms arrayed along each edge. Down its centre is a "street", a broad, toplit space containing shared facilities such as an IT zone and storage cupboards, which also allows teaching to spill out into it, and serves as the main means of internal circulation. At one end it leads to the assembly hall, at the other to a covered portico opening on to a play area.
The street almost entirely eliminates the need for corridors, and is the main move in a simple but practical plan. The classrooms have reasonable ceiling heights and big-enough windows with low sills. The reception area and teachers' offices feel pinched and underlit, but these things can be improved in future versions. The outside spaces are unformed and ragged, as tends to happen when a pre-designed shape is dropped into a location for which it was not designed, but they do their job.
The involvement of teachers was mostly a matter of choosing the plan, the colours and (with the children) the pictures of animals that identify each classroom, but the head teacher, Heather Fielding, says she is extremely happy with the result. She was somewhat relieved that the terrifying business of getting a building built was made so easy. It serves her needs. Problem solved, it would seem, except that Oakfield leaves you feeling that there should be something more to the places where children spend their formative years than a building that, ultimately, is a modified shopping shed.
In search of that something more, it's best not to dwell on the polychromatic, neo-gothic splendour of the Rugby school of Rupert Brooke and William Webb Ellis, visible on the way to Oakfield. Definitely out of the question for state schools. A more realistic comparison is with another new primary, in Takeley in Essex, near Stansted airport, designed by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. Oakfield cost about £2.7m, including cleaning an existing building and creating the perfectly flat site that the Keynes model requires; Takeley is 80% bigger, required soundproofing against aeroplane noise and cost £5.35m, which makes it more expensive, but not drastically so.
Here, the engagement with staff was rather more than mouse-clicking in front of a TV. They were involved before any plans were designed, which is reflected in a building with such things as a close relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, to make outdoor teaching easier. Rather than the formless exterior at Oakfield, there are courts and gardens into which the classrooms open. There are nice touches, such as big metal chutes that take the rainwater into a pool, and an intimate raised reading space for the library.
As with the Sunesis "street", the circulation spaces are seen as additions to the classrooms, here a more intricate set of enlarged corridors rather than a single big room. There is thought in the detail, variety in materials and engagement with the surroundings. On arrival you are faced with a brick gateway that, without being pompous or intimidating, communicates that this is somewhere important. These may seem like small things, but they make a profound difference. For all that its planning and some of its design is not bad, Sunesis treats its users like passive consumers, like internet shoppers or Ikea victims, whereas Takeley gives value to discovery, invention and finding things out for yourself.
Takeley, however, is a one-off, and it is idle to pretend that the pressures that favour standardised buildings will go away. What is most needed is a new Robson or Niemeyer, and a serious attempt to achieve repeatable designs that also raise children's experiences above the run of supermarkets and business parks that will form all too much of their lives. It would take a very small proportion of the amounts invested in school building to pay for this degree of thought.
Willmott Dixon's man tells me that they hope to drive the costs of Sunesis still lower, which, as they learn from building more of them, they are likely to do. Then he tells me that the money saved can be spent on desirable extras such as "more CCTV". At what point, if ever, will it be thought worthwhile to spend on a better environment?