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Qualities, Places, Settings Family of Schools

Preface Qualities, Places, Settings Lessons, examples, and ideas from across Scotland which highlight distinctively Scottish approaches to delivering well designed schools for the Curriculum for Excellence.

Image: Front/Back Cover Sketches by Prof. Alan Dunlop

Qualities Lessons from Participation There are basic qualities we need from our architecture to support learning of any type. This is a key message from participation. These reflect how we want to feel and what we want to do rather than what we demand as design solutions. Perhaps the most important quality for the design of our learning places in Scotland is this quality of forethought. Well designed learning places are first and foremost places which people want to be in. We have a wealth of experience in Scotland of talking to those who use our schools about how best to create places that work well for them. Consistent messages emerge from these conversations. How well we listen to these messages determines how relevant our designs are to those for whom they are designed. We hear about whole lives in a whole place rather than of time and place circumscribed by a bell or a gate. Design

Qualities Lessons for Briefing is taken beyond the classroom to highlight the importance of the spaces between, whether these are corridors, courtyards, playgrounds, or the surrounding landscapes and buildings. Our pupils, teachers, parents, and communities all yearn for schools in which they feel welcome and valued. There is a desire for approachable buildings that feel light and airy, and for attractive animated spaces with a sense of scale that feels just right for them. When given the opportunity, our pupils and teachers readily explore the diversity of different activities that might need to be accommodated in response to personal learning choices. They know what flexibility means for them. And we talk a lot about ownership, of our spaces and our buildings: places which speak to us of our own aspirations and ambitions, and which reflect our own involvement and circumstances.

Briefing for fundamental design qualities within our schools recognises the value of creative design in satisfying our requirements. We may know what we want to do in a school building and how we want it to feel – but the way in which we respond to these within a sea of constraints is where design really matters. Much of what we typically call a brief is a contractual specification setting out not only the requirements but often the detailed characteristics of the preferred answer. In a complex building it is genuinely difficult to anticipate the impact of each and every element on the qualities of the final experience. This is because we don’t generally set out what that final experience should be. So, sitting above every brief there needs to be a design statement – a qualitative narrative which attempts to capture the overriding, non-negotiable, qualities at the very heart of the issue.

These are the default requirements for every single part of the solution. An authentic expression of the building qualities we most value in any unique context gives us the most relevant framework to make decisions and rise to the right challenges. The first question of any design becomes – is this an answer with the qualities we are looking for? If our initial constraints seem to make this impossible then we need to look again at why we are doing what we are doing, or use the power of design to redefine the art of the possible. Design briefs for learning spaces are being prepared every day in Scotland. We have the experience across the country to know what works well, and what doesn’t. We have learnt lessons. One of these is that good designers working to deliver fundamental qualities in a strong brief is a key step in delivering consistently great learning spaces.

Places Family of Schools Learning places need to reflect the unique characteristics of a particular place. But it also makes good sense to learn from our experience rather than reinvent everything from first principles. If something works well it may be well worth repeating. This is not primarily a matter of design, it is a matter of meeting the brief. If two projects have the same requirements – physical context, community needs, teaching approaches, types of pupils, design qualities – then maybe they can indeed be the same. If two project briefs share absolutely nothing in common then maybe they should result in unique, totally bespoke designs. But neither of these two scenarios reflects the reality of Scottish school design. In Scotland, local authorities pursue their own ways of best delivering the Curriculum for Excellence and this results in different types of briefing requirements. In Scotland, the places

Places Efficiency of Learning in which schools are designed can be incredibly diverse within our small country. But within different regions there are still similarities in terms of physical context and culture. In exploring the potential for sharing common design elements, a single template solution would not reflect the way in which education is delivered in Scotland. However, across the country there are examples of local authorities choosing to develop their own ‘Family of Schools’ which accurately reflects their preferences whilst building on common design approaches informed by their experience. A ‘Family of Schools’ approach is based on local participation, collaboration with other authorities, and a pragmatic understanding of what works well in a particular area. It is a Scottish approach to delivering school designs which are effective and relevant for Scotland.

Three case studies were chosen to explore different ways in which a ‘Family of Schools’ approach has been developed by architects and local authorities. These initial case studies are focused on primary schools where it is easier to compare and contrast how different design solutions have emerged in response to the local requirements. All of these primary schools share similarities in the basic provision and layout of spaces. However, the three approaches have produced schools which look and feel quite different. In particular they each create a sense of place by the way their architectural form and use of materials respond to their settings. The importance of the nature of the sites for these schools is very clear from the configuration of the designs adopted – whether making use of slopes, or creating shelter from exposure, or responding to a prominent location. And, critically, they all

build on the lessons from local practices and traditions – learning not only from their civic architecture legacy but also from agricultural and urban references. There are of course efficiencies from adopting a common approach within a meaningful area. Perhaps the most important of these is ‘efficiency of learning’ – the avoidance of repeated mistakes and the rapid adoption of innovations which work. These examples are based on adopting and adapting ideas that work well wherever they come from, and grounding these in the needs of a specific place. Curriculum for Excellence supports the individual learner. In creating places which allow this to happen we need to look not only at the buildings and spaces but also at the settings which we can create. How we select and configure our furniture and equipment can radically expand or constrain our choices and opportunities for learning.

Settings Try Before You Buy In the Spring of 2011, The Schools Programme began working with Argyll and Bute Council and Campbeltown Grammar School to explore ways in which innovative interior design techniques can create new educational settings. A space was identified within the current 1960’s school in which ideas generated by students and staff could be developed, tried and tested. This is now a living and evolving exhibition space enabling experimentation with interior design settings and different learning approaches. Building on the success of this project, The Schools Programme are now working with Edinburgh City Council to explore how a mezzanine space can be reimagined within a vacant Victorian building. This will enhance its future use as a decant facility for the upper school of James Gillespie’s High School whilst their new school is under construction.

Settings The School Estate It is important to note that both of these interior design projects are the result of detailed participation, with pupils and staff remaining closely involved at every stage of the briefing, development, design, and evaluation of the final proposals. Both Campbeltown Grammar School and James Gillespie’s High School are being replaced as part of Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme and lessons learnt from these new settings will inform the design and use of the new schools and illustrate possibilities for the wider school estate in Scotland.

We are already replacing our worst school buildings across Scotland. So getting the learning settings right within these new schools is important for the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence. However it is also important that we make the most of our existing estate. The Campbeltown and Edinburgh examples both demonstrate that we can achieve much more within the constraints of our existing buildings if we engage with the people who use them to imagine different types of activities, layouts and furniture. Neither of these places viewed the ideas and concepts proposed as second best – and the results are viewed with a real sense of pride. Like all good design the solutions offered overcome the constraints to create unexpected benefits. We need to consider how we might reimagine our use of existing buildings by harnessing interior design tools to participation techniques. This is not only

the best way of making the best use of our school estate, but the process itself is a good example of Curriculum for Excellence in action. When we look at how to continue to improve the estate we tend to consider total rebuild or major refurbishment as the only two options. Both imply a certain level and distribution of resources to make this happen. Well designed settings created by empathetic, talented designers working with creative, Scottish pupils provide an alternative way of reinventing our learning spaces.


The aim of school design is straightforward: to create places where remarkable things can happen every day. This demands the relentless pursuit of better ways for design to enable learning. In participation workshops we often ask others to “imagine how the future might be different”. The results so far from these projects would suggest a future for our schools with at least three design-led benefits. Firstly, schools which work well and are a joy for those who use them. Secondly, schools which sit well in their surroundings and which look and feel relevant to their communities. And, thirdly, schools which seamlessly provide friendly environments for the aspirations of learners. The ‘Design Qualities’ project focusing on what qualities are necessary to a good user experience, The ‘Family of Schools’ project exploring regional approaches to place, and the ‘Try Before

Your Buy’ project to test new interior settings, are all examples of how design can make a profound difference to the experience of learning. Design is not merely part of the delivery mechanism, an item of procurement, it is also part of learning in Scotland– and one half of the creative conversation which makes remarkable places possible.

Qualities, Places, Settings : Family of Schools  
Qualities, Places, Settings : Family of Schools  

This pamphlet looks at lessons, examples and ideas from across Scotland which highlight distinctively Scottish approaches to delivering well...