Redesigning education

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

The classroom can be more than just a place to learn. Designed to address changing teaching methods and environmental concerns, schools can have an active influence on the learning process.

“The vision is that children will learn from the buildings,” says Richard Smith, Atkins’ technical director on the Taaleem Flagship School project in Dubai. With facilities that include a massive stadium, the Taaleem Flagship will have places for 4,000 children, making it more than four times bigger than an average British school. However, there’s nothing monolithic about the Taaleem Flagship School.

Taaleem, which means “education” in Arabic, is a Dubai-based school management business. Its Flagship is not one school, but more than 20 buildings.

There’s a major emphasis on low-carbon technologies – the buildings incorporate traditional Islamic design features to help them stay cool naturally – and on creating an environment that works socially. The idea is that if students are inspired by the environmentally sound characteristics of their school, this will influence their long-term thinking.

“For example, the courtyard is central to Islamic architecture. It is a social space, but also works very well from a thermal comfort point of view,” says Smith. “The Flagship is a series of courtyard buildings connected with narrow streets and alleyways, each with its own character and theme.”

Bricks to blackboard

In Britain, the belief that buildings can shape what happens within them is the driving force behind the most comprehensive school renewal programme ever undertaken. Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is a government initiative, with plans to rebuild or refurbish every one of England’s 3,500 state secondary schools over the next 15 years. While funding is largely provided through the Private Finance Initiative, Partnerships for Schools (PfS) is the public agency charged with making it happen.

“We are already seeing that educational transformation can reap rewards,” says Tim Byles, chief executive of PfS. “However, you have to take it as a whole package,” he adds. “As well as new and refurbished buildings, you must bring new ways of teaching, leadership, state-of-the-art information and communication technology (ICT) and resources. The whole experience is of a completely fresh start.”

Of the BSF schools, 38 are now in action. PfS has had research carried out in one of the first to open, now more than a year old, to measure the impact of the changes on behaviour and attitudes.

“The findings were really quite dramatic,” says Byles. “Bullying and vandalism decreased, so students felt much safer, and they felt proud to go to school – something that was rare in the old school. More students want to stay on beyond the age of 16, and there’s a real sense that, within just a few months, the transformed environment and atmosphere in the school has helped to change their lives for the better.”

The learning space

Changes in how children are taught are also having an impact on the way schools are designed. “Transforming education is largely about the quality of spaces that we provide,” says Philip Watson, Atkins’ head of education.

“It’s no longer about 30 pupils in a classroom with a chalkboard, but a range of spaces in which we can explore personalised learning plans for each student.”

With a commitment to helping improve standards of education and teaching spaces, Atkins is on three of four Frameworks for Excellence, set up by the UK’s Learning Skills Council to help improve performance across the further education sector.

At the Atkins-designed i-Lab at Hassenbrook School in Essex, pupils study in a paperless learning environment with collaborative software tools that capture ideas and plans as they emerge. Based on a concept developed by the Post Office, the i-Lab supports everything from school brainstorming sessions to electronic voting.

ICT is undoubtedly going to play an increasingly important role in schools, with BSF acting as a catalyst for change. But there are practical implications to consider. If each child is given a laptop, where will they all be plugged in? Are desks the right height? And then there are the educational aspects of ICT provision. How can computers support the curriculum and are they relevant to every lesson? As principal consultant with the management consultancy team at Atkins, it’s up to Raj Sanghera to find answers to questions like these. He says getting ICT right is a balancing act and that computers should be phased into a school.

“We have to recognise that the way children learn is changing,” says Sanghera. “Having grown up with texting, MSN and Facebook, they’re digital natives. Their brains work in a different way to past generations; they multi-task.”

What this means is that some traditional teaching methods could be turning children off. “We have to find out how the digital natives learn and respond to that,” Sanghera says. “Teachers now need more strings to their bow.”

These new approaches to teaching are re-negotiating the traditional boundaries of education, both in the way the learning space is used and how children are taught. Greater flexibility and freedom for individuals to learn in their own way means big changes for both teaching staff and pupils. “Teachers like to have a classroom that they call home,” says Watson. “But we’re trying to get away from the idea that teaching happens behind a closed door. We need a more fluid space, where teaching and learning coexist.”

One simple idea aims to reduce the pandemonium between lessons. “When we’re creating these transform-ational schools, instead of getting 1,700 pupils to move around every half an hour, we’re trying to encourage the 100 members of staff to move instead, because it reduces disruption, bullying and wear and tear,” says Watson.

Out with the old?

In making a case for new schools, there’s a tendency to deride anything that’s out of fashion – and then send in the bulldozers. But are old buildings always a bad thing? When London’s Westminster Council gave the green light for the demolition of Pimlico School – a brutalist edifice of the 1960s, loved and hated in equal measure – it provoked an outcry. So why not just improve existing buildings?

“BSF isn’t just about new buildings,” emphasises Byles. “Across the programme, around 50 per cent of floor space will be new build, while the other half is refurbishment to different degrees. Although over 80 per cent of the schools were built before the mid-1970s, some more recent buildings and those that are in good condition and in the right location can be refurbished to a high standard.”

Policy initiatives in the UK, such as the introduction of specialist diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds, are creating fresh challenges for schools. The diplomas, for example, can mean that students take lessons in different schools. While computers can help – as students can carry their work with them on one central device – that has implications for BSF programmes. “Students will move from school to school as semi-nomadic learners, so a holistic solution is essential. Devices need to work whichever school you are in,” stresses Sanghera. “Traditionally, schools have competed against each other,” he adds. “But in the new model they will have to collaborate in developing learning resources.”

Given the fresh demands being made upon schools, it’s unsurprising that some existing buildings have been found wanting. “One of the key problems is that the school stock has been allowed to deteriorate,” says Watson. “We had

a spurt of building in the 1950s and 1960s, but have not done much since then. Many school buildings were cheaply constructed and have been added to in a piecemeal fashion. Now the estate is crumbling.”

Sustainable schools

There’s now a greater awareness that when building the schools of the future, they must stand the test of time. As well as the fact that low build quality adds to lifecycle costs, greater demands on school buildings, environmental concerns and higher energy prices are forcing a reappraisal of how things are built. Designing long-lasting, sustainable buildings is something Atkins has taken a lead in.

“It’s no longer a corporate social responsibility issue, it’s a primary business driver to actually take carbon, embedded and whole life, out of capital projects,” Atkins’ chief executive, Keith Clarke, told Bloomberg TV recently.

“It’s moving very fast to a point where we’re calculating carbon the same way as we calculate wind loads or calculate pedestrian movements or power usage,” he said.

Atkins’ clients in the Middle East have been swift to embrace Carbon Critical Design – taking carbon into account right from the beginning of the design question. As well as working with Taaleem on Dubai’s Flagship School, Atkins is also designing a new school for the company in Bahrain.

The $53 million school will be the first one in Bahrain with LEED accreditation, a carbon rating system for buildings. The new school will feature recyclable building materials and there are plans to include photovoltaic panels and wind turbines to generate electricity.

“The LEED accreditation raises construction costs by around five per cent,” says Taaleem’s academic development director, Dr Sadru Damji. “However, in the long term, the cost of running the facility will be cut by 25 per cent a year. This makes the decision to build a green school both environmentally friendly and financially viable.”

In the UK, public buildings are one of the biggest sources of CO2 and the government wants schools to be zero carbon by 2016. It’s a complex business, compounded by the fact that, currently, there’s no definition of exactly what zero carbon means. However, the creation of three sustainability exemplar schools would demonstrate what could be achieved.

With a budget of £32 million, the project at Richmond School in North Yorkshire combines refurbishment of existing buildings and the construction of new ones. A core objective for Atkins and Faithful+Gould in the project is a planned 20 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions.

One of the biggest challenges for many schools is not heating them, but keeping them cool, particularly now that computers, which produce heat, are widely used in classrooms. To minimise energy use, Richmond’s new buildings incorporate high levels of insulation, increased thermal mass and high-efficiency glazing and ventilation.

Low energy lighting with automatic switching and computer technology that moves “hot” processing components out of the classroom (known as “thin client” computing) are also part of the equation.

In tandem, Richmond will use low-carbon technologies to produce its own energy: hot water and heating will be provided by a biomass boiler, while six wind turbines will contribute to the school’s electricity needs.

Learning by example

As well as cutting emissions and energy bills, deploying these solutions could play an important part in lessons. Data on energy production and consumption will be fed into an electronic energy management system, which pupils will be able to see through the school computer network – with important implications for teaching subjects such as physics, maths and even geography.

“Each of the buildings will be metered and monitored so you can see how much power you’re using – not just once every quarter, but hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute,” says David Reynolds, Richmond School project manager at Faithful+Gould. As an exemplar, Richmond School will serve as an environmental and educational standard bearer, not only for North Yorkshire but for the UK as a whole. As part of this effort, Faithful+Gould also developed an online Carbon Calculator to help deliver a low-carbon solution for schools for the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Better planning – with teaching and learning methods, carbon and lifecycle costs all taken into account from day one – should mean the future for Richmond, and schools like it all over the world, will be much brighter.

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