Linking design quality and education

Roiner Leiringer( University of Gottenberg), Paula Cardellino( University of Uruguay) and Derek Clements -Croome ( University of Reading)

The significance of design quality is clearly articulated in the official documentation and advice on how to achieve it is provided in abundance. However, the reports fall somewhat short in describing how design quality can be fostered to achieve educational transformation. Whilst several reports set out the attributes of a well-designed school scant attention is commonly given to the commercial context. The majority of the reports target the architectural aspects of the building design and prescribe an architectural approach towards the assessment of design quality. To a degree this could be argued to be due to the great prominence and frequency of CABE reports. However, it should be remembered that CABE was specifically commissioned by the Government to provide advice on good design in public building projects. Hence, it is not surprising that these reports and the interpretations of design quality offered within them have had a significant impact. However, the architectural biased approach seemingly underestimates the value of intangible aspects of design and chances are that the tool becomes a ‘tick in the box’ exercise.

Functionality and fitness for purpose

A functional school building is one that through its design addresses present and future changes in pedagogy. That the building is ‘fit for purpose’ is viewed as a crucial component of design quality and vital to the achievement of a good school building. This concept was given significant prominence in the BSF and it relates closely with the Government’s expressed policy that the investment in secondary schools is not just about providing new buildings, but also about acting as a channel for educational transformation.

Flexibility and adaptability

Past approaches to school design are deemed to have hindered the ability of adapting the building to future needs in education . Designing flexible environments is believed to enable the adoption and adaption of the emerging changes in education. Thus, flexible and adaptable building designs ‘future proof’ the spaces and allow for a variety of uses at different points in time. Furthermore, it is suggested that flexible or ‘agile’ designs will allow for short-term changes of layout and use, and for long-term expansion or contraction . However, the need to strike a balance between flexibility and specificity and the functional aspects of the school (teaching areas) and social spaces are also explicitly expressed.

Inspirational, safe and secure

Inspirational school buildings are supportive of effective teaching and learning and inspire users to learn. The ultimate aim is for spaces that foster creativity and a culture of learning. The design of learning environments that have something unique about them will make these spaces special - ‘spaces’ that become ‘places’ . This is believed to be achieved through the design of environments that accommodate a wide range of experiences and activities and that include all types of learning: intellectual, physical, practical, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural . In other words, inspirational buildings support a diversity of learners and inspire not only the pupils, but also those who work and visit the school. 

Aesthetically pleasing and contextual fit

A building is considered to be ‘beautiful’ when it ‘lifts the spirits’ of those who come into contact with it . An aesthetically pleasing building is portrayed as not only having the potential to create a ‘sense of place’ in the internal school environment, but also as having a positive effect on the local community. Likewise, a school that is welcoming and accessible is portrayed as having a positive impact not only on the users of the building, but also on the surrounding areas. For example, an attractive entrance and a welcoming hall contribute to a positive visual impact on the local neighbourhood . As such, contextual fit goes beyond the specific school environment and places emphasis on the interaction with and contribution to the local community and public well-being in general.

Build quality and sustainability

 Build quality is a concept that speaks for itself and sustainability is a topic that cannot be meaningfully dealt with in the confines of this paper. Nevertheless, important to the argument presented here is that well designed learning environments should provide a platform for wider learning agendas ranging from the issues of citizenship and sustainability. For example, CABE presents the sustainable character of the building, in terms of the use of natural light and ventilation, the consideration of alternative forms of energy and the choice of robust materials from sustainable sources, as a means to highlight and disseminate environmental issues.


Design quality in practice

From the above analysis it is clear that several of the attributes of design quality are of a subjective nature and will be given varying importance by different stakeholders in the BSF programme. It goes without saying that these stakeholders, e.g. contractors, architects, representatives of government bodies and consultants, have a significant impact on the materialisation of design quality. The following section explores these stakeholders’ perceptions of what the important attributes of good design are and how they are operated  in practice.

“I think design quality is really interesting and generally very misunderstood. And I think CABE keep trying to describe to people what design quality is, and it keeps being misheard”  [Architect 1]

“What is good design? Obviously there are different views because there always will be in an industry, but I’m sorry to say that rock bottom is I just do not think many people would know a good design if it hit them in the face like a wet fish. Therein lies the problem.” [Contractor 1]


Fitness for purpose and educational transformation


The foremost goal of the refurbishment and construction of new or refurbishment school projects is to achieve educational transformation  and this is the principal criterion against which success will be measured. In this respect, there is unanimous agreement regarding the necessity of understanding the educational nature of the school and the physical environment of the building. Several government bodies address the importance of considering and accommodating the new teaching and learning agendas, such as ‘every child matters’ and ‘personalised learning’ in the school design:


“I think we are aware that actually we are designing schools that are 20th century schools rather than 21st century schools in the sense of they are still largely departmentally organised and so on, rather than organised in a freer form that a personalised learning might determine.”  [DfES representative]

Thus, there is a belief that the introduction and implementation of these educational approaches to various degrees are dependent on the design of school buildings. Yet, there is real concern regarding the ability of those involved in the design process to address the rapidly changing pedagogies. The ability to predict and visualise the way in which the pedagogy will change in the future is seen as a major challenge:


The character of the building


The idea that the building should be aesthetically pleasing was prevalent amongst the architects. Yet, the rest of the interviewees were less enthusiastic about this aspect of design quality and concerns were raised regarding the benefits of designing overly ‘fancy’ buildings. The contractors and the consultants, in particular, considered these to cost too much and have minimal, if any, impact on learning. In their view many architects produce superficially attractive and glitzy buildings, and are lacking in their ability to relate to the physical spaces needed to deliver the educational transformation required:


“You have got some quite interesting buildings. But are they good value for money - probably not. Are they architecturally pleasing - yes. But then are they overly architecturally pleasing - probably. So the client pays for that.”  [Contractor 2]


It was argued that the use of images of award winning school buildings in the reports, at times, served to put excessive emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of the buildings and divert attention from education. Those involved at the programme level were, of course, not oblivious to this and they too had concerns about spending the allocated money merely on ‘landmark’ buildings. The architectural design of a building is only one aspect of the school and they were adamant about the allocated money being spent on good educational facilities.


Creating a ‘sense of place’ within the school environment was acknowledged as an important aspect of design quality. The creation of this feeling of belonging within the school is, therefore, not only a building matter. Different schools, children and contexts will create a variety of conditions for this to happen. The architects were committed to creating designs that encourage social interaction between pupils and staff. Their descriptions of how this was to be achieved within the school building tended to be quite emotive and used analogies such as ‘special spaces’ and the ‘heart of the school’. However, concerns were raised about the restrictions encountered when attempting to include special spaces into the school design:


“The vision is often an education vision, so it is very slanted towards education. They will say ‘must have sufficient social spaces’ but the problem is that nowhere in Building Bulletin 98 or 99 does it give you an area for social spaces.”  [Architect 2]

“We have got to spend the money where it is best spent so if it needs a really welcoming opening entrance and the entrance needs to look big and really welcoming and everything else, we will spend a bit of money there but perhaps the back of the house might not be so ‘wazzy’ and when you get to class rooms at 60 sq metres a classroom there is only so much you can do with them, isn’t there, so the point is trying to design those as best you can. So it is knowing where the best place to spend the money is and perhaps where it’s not so critical to give the client at the end of the day exactly what they want.”  [Contractor 3]