Mixed-use developments: schools of the future?

Michál Cohen, director at Walters & Cohen Architects, explores the opportunities available for independent schools as part of a large, mixed-use development

Independent schools have a long history of sharing their facilities with other local schools and with the wider community. Lending out sports pitches and swimming pools – either free of charge or for a favourable rate – is commonplace, and some schools go further, freeing up staff to coach students from other schools.

A lot of those we work with have outstanding facilities, including one whose hall has such good acoustics, the BBC has used it for recordings. Another client wanted to improve public access across their split site, and in doing so they effectively brought a neglected war memorial back into the public realm. Clearly there’s a lot that independent schools are already doing to build good community relationships.

How much greater are the possibilities, then, when a school is part of a large, mixed-use development? We’ve been working with the Alpha Plus Group since 2017 and they are keen to invest in shared use that goes beyond the bounds of a normal school day.

For example, one of their schools will have drama facilities to be used by a nearby performing arts school and by the community. As well as the main theatre, supplementary spaces will include classrooms to use as green rooms and an assembly hall that can function as a foyer.

Recently, Alpha Plus have been looking at a very large development that will include commercial space, hotels, retail and residential. The benefits here will go two ways: the school will have access to everything around it – there are great possibilities for students in terms of work experience and training – and the community can access some of the facilities in the school.

Safeguarding will be a key consideration: you have to work hard to make sure the various areas of the site can be used safely by different parties at the same time. I think of it working like the layers of an onion, layering security clearance throughout the school and across the whole development.

We know that all school budgets are being tested, and if you’re planning a building project – whether that be new build or making more out of what you already have – then ‘planning’ really is the operative word.

Our most successful projects are those where we’ve been able to consult across the school community, with students, teaching and ancillary staff, senior leadership, governors, parents and neighbours. And if you want to make sure that your project is going to be useful to local school and local communities then you need to build those discussions into your programme too.

It makes good financial sense to have hard-working spaces and, where appropriate, to allow for use out of school hours and in the school holidays. I think of a flexible learning space as something like a ‘barn for learning’. If you get the acoustics right and the furniture right, then that space can be used for all manner of activities.

The benefits here will go two ways: the school will have access to everything around it – there are great possibilities for students in terms of work experience and training – and the community can access some of the facilities in the school

We are seeing a move away from having only separate, cellular learning spaces: most of our clients want some open spaces too, where free movement encourages different activities to happen. One school told us that having this mix of spaces has enabled their move away from teaching as ‘sage on the stage’ towards ‘guide on the side’, with teachers facilitating students in their independent and collaborative investigations.

Larger, flexible spaces – connected to a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces – also lend themselves to conferences, teacher training, holiday clubs and corporate ‘away days’ as well as working hard throughout the school day. I know I’d find an office team building day more relaxing and inspiring in a school like this, than in a smart hotel.

We are working with an innovative education provider wanting to re-think and greatly expand the notion of shared facilities. They are looking at a central ‘learning street’ design, where all the accommodation on one side will be shared between the school and the public (theatre, restaurant, gym, art spaces) and the other side will have learning spaces almost entirely for the school’s use. Although this arrangement wouldn’t work well with younger children, it could be ideal for a secondary school or sixth form college.

Another thing schools can be thinking about as they plan for a mixed-use future, is making better use of outside spaces. At a recent online conference we learned how the rise of TB in the 20th century encouraged lots of countries to turn to outdoor classrooms, even in colder climates. Naturally this is very relevant to our current global situation, when once again the focus is on outdoor spaces for health reasons.

You might think those with acres of green space are at an advantage here – and of course that is great to have – but we’ve done masterplans for urban schools too, and perhaps those are the clients we can surprise most with ideas around using the outside better.

Outdoor spaces for schools used to mean Tarmac and sports pitches, but there is so much you can do – relatively quickly and easily in some instances – to make valuable areas for socialising and outdoor teaching.

Research coming out of institutes such as De Montfort University is also showing the benefits of biophilic design in schools, learning in nature and bringing nature to the indoor learning environment. How wonderful that studies are confirming things that humans have long instinctively felt to be right.

One more point relating to Covid is that schools have had to introduce fully digitised distance learning. As a result, everyone I speak to says the use of tech within the learning environment has leapt ahead by 15 years.

My understanding is that the best schools are taking the benefits they’ve found around the use of high-quality technology – excellent cameras, microphones and acoustics help greatly – and are blending that into individual responses to students’ learning. This is obviously work in progress, but I look forward to seeing how it will feed into community benefits in the future.

With so much to consider, independent schools have exciting times ahead; yes, challenging too, but there are a lot of very creative thinkers out there. My experience is that looking for ways to build community connections benefits everybody, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

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