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Are we designing and building the right schools for future Australia? (We could be getting it so wrong)

While there is a need to outsource some aspects of the school-building process, completely handing the process over to the private sector in this way risks depleting public resources and creating long-term, commercial dependencies

The next few decades require some radical thinking about how to build a new generation of Australia’s schools. The schools we build and how we build them will have a massive impact on the education we can deliver to future Australian students. I believe this discussion is too important to leave to politicians, education officials and architects. 

Australia’s cities are growing rapidly. Recent statistics suggest that Sydney and Melbourne will each accommodate over five million people by 2020, with Perth already pushing past the two million mark. While bringing many benefits, such population growth leaves cities facing the double-whammy of decreased available space and increasing demand on public services. Alongside concerns over the stability of our water supplies, public transportation and other essentials, proper consideration now needs to be given to the education of children and young people.

Of course, detailed plans are in place to cope with the immediate boom in school numbers over the 2020s with states putting forwards billions to (re)build public schools across Australia. Nonetheless, poor planning decisions in some cities, financialized redevelopment, historic school closures and other reasons mean that expectations of what a school is, are changing: we see the construction of ‘vertical schools’ in Sydney and Melbourne – new high-rise buildings that employ space-saving techniques borrowed from corporate architecture. At the same time – in a conspicuous effort to distinguish themselves from the pack – some elite private institutions are embarking on lavish neo-classical building projects in order to retain a traditional look and feel.

All this building work involves more than just a superficial change in appearance. Redesigning schools means changing their function and character. The new schools of the next decade will have a significant impact on what Australian schools are, and what they are able to do. For example, while the sleek lines of the vertical school might look impressive in paper, they have clear ramifications for how teaching and learning will (and will not) take place. My concern is that there has not yet been sufficient debate about these developments. Just what type of ‘school’ education do we want to be building for Australia over the next 50 or so years?

In order to get the ball rolling and hopefully spark serious conversation about school architecture, here are four insights that we can take from similar debates elsewhere in the world:

#1 AVOIDING A CRISIS MENTALITY

First, Australian educators and designers need to be wary of being panicked into change for change’s sake. Architecture theorist and practitioner at the University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Dana Cuff argues that architectural debates are often driven by a ‘crisis mentality’ – a way of seeing and a set of values that too rapidly discards what we have in order to justify bold new buildings and innovative architecture.

Instead, we might slow down enough to ask what values are being concretized into new schools? At what stage in the design process are these defined, who contributes to them and which values are traded out?

It is all too easy to see Australia’s impending population growth as warranting a complete rethink of how we go about building schools. Instead, we need to avoid throwing all our babies out with the bathwater. There is much to learn from earlier Australian schools, an emphasis on space, the outdoors and health, for example. The Argentinian education researcher Inés Dussel bemoans the superficial and ahistorical nature of much recent discussion of new educational spaces around the world.

New school designs also risk following the current trend for ‘Instagrammable’ architecture, buildings that look impressive from the outside but that disappoint inside to the point of being dysfunctional. The big challenge for Australia is to resist the faddishness of school design so problematic internationally, and focus on spaces that are genuinely useful and meaningful for students and teachers.

#2 DESIGNING SCHOOLS FOR LIVING AS WELL AS LEARNING

Another trap to avoid is framing the re-design and building of schools wholly in terms of ‘learning’, and particularly learning seen through the lens of NAPLAN, PISA and other standardised measures. Professor of Public Education at Maynooth University, Ireland, Gert Biesta, argues, this ‘learnification’ of education misses out a great deal of what schools actually do, not least the social and cultural role of schools as places to gain a sense of community and citizenship.

For example, a classroom can be a lot more than a ‘learning space’, a library much more than a ‘learning resource centre’. We might take inspiration from twentieth century architects who conceptualised school as a place for living as well as learning, ideas the Dutch architect, Herman Hertzberger, uses by framing classrooms and corridors as homes and street, thus revitalising the social basis of the school.

Extending this idea, how might ‘school’ be distributed beyond the four walls of the campus and into community spaces?

These alternative ideas can be challenging, but a critical engagement with 1960s’ descriptions of the ‘city-as-school’ and ‘non-place school’ is timely. Far-fetched perhaps, but any opportunity to build new schools is an opportunity to ‘think outside the box’ in more ways than one.

#3.  WE GET WHAT WE PAY FOR

With billions of dollars of new investment, building new schools is big business. Architects get bad press here when in fact much of their work can reduce costs and make buildings more usable. The challenge is to think about schools and their buildings more broadly and more long-term so that financial imperatives do not take precedence over what gets built and where.

This will inevitably involve politics. Recognising this makes it an educational possibility of its own, something to be discussed rather than swept under the carpet. Spatial politics here is both urban and personal as University of New South Wales Professor Kalervo Gulson’s work on Sydney’s school closures showed a decade ago and as Deakin University senior lecturer, Emma Rowe, illustrates in the entwining of economics, politics – even architecture – in school choice in Victoria.

Equally concerning is the increased outsourcing of school-building and service provision to the private sector and – relatedly – how infrastructure including schools is transformed from public goods into financial assets. The UK is still recovering from the collapse of Carillion, a multi-billion dollar contracting and construction services company whose financial collapse directly affected 220 schools and launched a parliamentary inquiry.

While there is a need to outsource some aspects of the school-building process, completely handing the process over to the private sector in this way risks depleting public resources and creating long-term, commercial dependencies.

If we are to build a school system that works in the public interest then governments need to have full oversight and full understanding of their school building projects. As the House of Commons ‘constitutional affairs committee’ admonished the UK government over the Carillion collapse: “government ultimately cannot outsource the need to understand what it is outsourcing”.

#4. A NATIONWIDE DEBATE ABOUT SCHOOL ARCHITECTURE

Finally, the whole education community needs the time and space to debate these issues. “Crisis” squeezes discussion opportunities, authorizes hurried solutionism and circumscribes dialogue.

And the terms of the debate need to be challenged too: if questions of how to make school buildings better are important, asking why we are building them is necessary. Architects are a crucial part of this process, providing inventive, cost-reducing and energy-saving ways to make schooling easier, happier and better organized.

However, these conversations need to involve everyone whose lives are touched by schools, from parents and teachers, to local communities and the students themselves.

Whether you agree with these arguments or not, it is clearly time to talk more openly and more imaginatively about school architecture and what school-realized education could be. While the next few years offer an opportunity to rethink and reinvigorate Australian education, our day-in-day-out use of buildings means we tend to take them for granted so that even teachers and school principals are not accustomed to thinking about school architecture. As such, decisions over what gets built are currently led by design professionals and financiers, more than the genuine needs of the people and communities whose lives these schools will ultimately shape.

The beginning of the 2020s is an opportune moment for us all to re-think and re-design Australian schooling. As the pioneering architect of many schools and universities, Giancarlo De Carlo, put it almost 50 years ago, “architecture is too important to be left to architects”.

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Are we designing and building the right schools for future Australia? (We could be getting it so wrong)

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