New Zealand and China – new approaches to school buildings

Second of two guest blogs by Dr Paul Kelley

In my last blog I considered the ambitious plans of New Zealand to use Ultra-Fast Broadband to bring better education to all its citizens.  Part of New Zealand’s Inquiry into the implementation of 21stCentury learning is linked to consideration of school buildings.

Both New Zealand and China are dedicated to improving education, and their school buildings. In New Zealand, the Chair of the Education and Science Select Committee, Nikki Kaye, makes clear the opportunities for inspirational buildings within the one billion dollar budget for new and refurbished school buildings.  In China, the transformation of cities is astounding – and not just in Beijing and Shanghai. In Hebei Province, Baoding and Shijiazhuang have been transformed to very modern cities with populations of more than 10 million.

Both countries could do with considering the failures and occasional success of English education.  Changes in the education system are reflected in educational buildings- or a lack of change in the case of England.  This is most apparent in the English education system where hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on buildings, most of which, in the end, were simply newer versions of old buildings.  This trend is continuing, and degrading the quality of school environments by failing to future-proof new buildings.

The ambition to implement school designs better suited to the 21st Century was not achieved in England, though the school building in the photograph above this blog shows one of the few that reflected the ambitions of Mukund Patel, the visionary leader of the Department for Education’s  Schools for the Future programme.  This failure to achieve systemic change was not the fault of architects. For example,  Alex de Rijke of dRMM created one visionary design, the Dura– the model for the school above- re- built another (Kingsdale School here), and has inspiring ideas about education buildings.  Kingsdale has the most wonderful ETFE roof, and being in this interior area is an inspiration on its own.

Here dRMM’s Clapham Manor School shows how a stunning modern school can complement a much older building- the Odd Fellows Hall.  Indeed, I would suggest that the school will, in the end, become the more important of the two.  It has the visionary quality that characterizes dRMM as a practice, and the quality of finish that is breathtaking.

New Zealand is fortunate in having a clear link between education and science in its political structure, as new science will help solve some problems in schools.  There is much that is wrong with school buildings- they are usually too small, have poor acoustics, bad air quality, and low light levels –  yet there are solutions based on good science and engineering to resolve these issues.  Having education linked to science may help New Zealand find good solutions.

It would be fitting for New Zealand, with one of the world’s best environments, could create world-leading school designs that enhance learning for students, and the digital network for the country as a whole.   Such an achievement would help the country become a leading example of good educational practice through embracing the future- rather than rebuilding the past.

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