Education, education, education

September 3, 2020

Claire Mantle, schools sector director at ADP, explains how schools can – and should – be designed to foster better resilience, empathy, respect, teamwork, and physical and mental health among children and young people

Has COVID-19 changed the future of schools?
We’ve all been talking about education since the start of lockdown. Moving beyond the challenging months of home-schooling and the phased reopening of schools for key-worker children and critical year groups, every parent, teacher and school manager must be wondering what happens next – and, even more importantly, what will change.

The pandemic highlighted how much children – particularly from underprivileged backgrounds – rely on schools for more than just an academic education. So, beyond the functional requirements of planning for return, do the curriculum and the facilities that schools provide need to change to reflect the broader social value they offer?

Engaging with our clients and end-users, we’ve reflected on the opportunity these changes create for education and the physical environment. It’s an opportunity to look at schools and education differently.

School life through a new lens

Could we dedicate afternoons to personalised learning, well-being, sports and vocational skills? Teach children beyond the curriculum – focusing instead on resilience, empathy, respect, teamwork, physical and mental health? Promote subjects such as art, music, sport and food technology to assist with learning, allowing children to express themselves and learn life skills?

What would this mean in terms of the physical environment and design of our schools? How can design have a positive influence on users’ well-being, giving the flexibility for adaptability and use by the local community?

By working with schools, we’ve prioritised well-being and mental health, carefully considering adjacencies of rooms and spaces to ensure teachers and pupils feel supported. Creating open, well-lit and engaging areas prompts unexpected conversations and social learning and minimises hidden corners.

Indoor physical activity is promoted through the clever placement of staircases, making circulation rewarding with a sense of destination and arrival. This sort of design rewards movement with views, light and nature.

Connections with nature and outdoor learning

The provision of good external spaces further supports the importance of well-being. This is often the first part of the budget to be cut – but perhaps now is the right time to invest more in landscape and the natural environment.

This is particularly true if we can take learning outside, encourage staff to champion outdoor learning, and enable external environments to be accessed by the community, increasing their social value beyond the school day.


Flexibility is key; adaptable spaces, that flex easily to accommodate social distancing, are better able to support teacher and student safety, well-being and mental health. Moving forward, we need to be smarter with spaces and create opportunities to teach – and learn – in different ways.

As an example, at Sedgefield Community College, ADP is creating a fully immersive teacher training experience, working with the Newcastle-based Laidlaw Schools Trust to deliver a training hub that will root graduates in the North East and help to counteract the teaching ‘brain drain’ to the south.

The building is functional, but with a modest footprint of 1100m2, it challenges conventional thinking about circulation, breakout spaces and flexibility, making the most of its limited space. The design takes inspiration from higher education environments, and the project is supported by partner and fellow ADP client Durham University.

That attitude to space – viewing it as flexible rather than fixed – influences every element of the design. We used sliding partitions to give spaces the option of dividing or combining for different purposes; creative, built-in storage allows furniture to be added or removed to suit the occasion. This kind of approach requires careful attention to detail, so that lighting, power and safety work equally well across divided and combined spaces – but the approach pays enormous dividends.

Dave Davies, director of school improvement (secondary) at Laidlaw Schools Trust, said: “Sedgefield will soon have a truly inspirational facility where student teachers, many of whom will take up posts at Laidlaw Schools Trust academies, will be able to learn from some of the most talented and successful teachers in the North East.”

Community schools

Communities have come closer, with far more collaboration between academia, industry and civic life. Technology has enabled new ways of teaching and learning, with the potential to extend the school day, widen access to the curriculum, and unlock new ways of learning.

As architects, we’ve thought carefully about the value the spaces within a school can bring to a community. Evidence from post-occupancy evaluations highlights the value of these spaces to parents and families – spaces which are often used beyond capacity. Current area schedules simply do not allow for these spaces, but is there an opportunity now for elements of the school estate to be viewed as community assets, and maintained as such?

Future concepts

Our own emerging concepts for teaching spaces feature natural light, community access, and indoor/outdoor teaching areas. By blending these with interactive technologies and virtual reality, we’ve created accessible, immersive learning environments.

If we genuinely are building the future, what has COVID-19 taught us? Perhaps that school design isn’t just about cost, but about value.  The social and societal value of a school and the support it provides to staff, pupils, parents, and the community beyond.

As one of our clients recently remarked: “How wonderful to be on the cusp of something more exciting. We can all work in a way to make things flex to our benefit.”


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