No-one who knows me well will be in the least doubt that I think we have a huge amount to learn from Norwegian education. There is so much about it that is wholesome, democratic, open and child-centred that it sometimes bores me to be working in English education. One of the wonderful things about the settlement between the Norwegian people and their schools is that there should be more than enough space to learn and work in – and to move in, because children who can move around without bumping into each other will have less contact, fewer accidents, fewer disputes. They thus have a generous amount of room for their children to learn in.
Well, today, the Department for Education (note that they don’t call themselves the Department OF Education – that would imply a degree of cognitive excellence they do not always reveal) have brought out of the basement their new design specifications for smaller, cheaper schools. They have published some design templates in case you want to build your own and have a crack at the £2.5 billion pot that is around for fixing up the worst schools. If you fancy a “Type 2 Primary School” to house 420 children and a 26 place nursery (and who wouldn’t?) you can see the plans here. They are designed to be up to 15% smaller than previous plans, presumably because they have evidence that children are 15% shorter than they were under New Labour, or that children are (as a result of the Labour-initiated recession, naturally) moving around 15% too much and they mean to cut that out, for starters. I don’t know. Here are the perspective designs from the DfE for the “Type 2” Primary School. The first thing you notice is how small the classes are – if the architect has drawn the tables and chairs correctly, and how narrow the corridors are.
The design brief contains the following instructions:
A standardised approach should be taken, with the aim of creating simple designs that have the potential to be replicated on a number of sites. This may be achieved by using standardised dimensions for similar types of spaces that are integrated into an efficient planning and structural grid.
ceilings should be left bare and buildings should be clad in nothing more expensive than render or metal panels above head height.
I know we are in a recession, but do we not want Britain to be somewhere in the forefront of architectural design? Can you see the line of architects desperate to be chosen to build one of these things? Either you go and get a lucrative contract in the Tower of Babel (doesn’t Dubai remind you of that?) or you try and build one of these schools out of cardboard and Meccano, all the while with a jobsworth from the DfE breathing down your iPhone. I am not clever enough to be an architect, but I am clever enough to know which I would choose, were I an upcoming British architect looking for work.
Go down by Fenchurch at the moment and see the fantastic buildings that are being commissioned and built in that part of London. It is obviously OK for the corporates and banks to have snazzy buildings, but these are too good for our children – real, live children – to be educated in.
In March last year I spent a day at the Sagvag Skule, about which I have previously written. It was built in the same year (2004/5) as Christ the Sower, and is a similar square meterage. The difference between us is that Sagvag Skule was designed to house 160 pupils, while we have 2.5 times that many here. Each class base is relatively small (but only relatively – the picture at the top is one of their classrooms), but usually only used to gather the class together and for whole class teaching. Classes in one wing then share a huge amount of learning space, open plan and equipped with far more chairs and tables than they will need. Children were working in small groups here, or on one of the banks of laptops that were positioned in the middle of the learning area.
Ceilings were high and natural light was given every chance of getting in through the large windows. It was an object lesson in how to design a school for the contentment of those who had to use it. Staff working areas were separate from staff eating areas, in turn separate from areas of relaxation and study. It was not necessarily the most beautiful of buildings from the outside (Norwegians pay far more attention to indoors than outdoors, generally), but it was a grand place to be in, innovative and highly stimulating of learning and community.
Norway is a very wealthy nation, and its people have among the highest living standards in the world. However, that does not necessarily mean that they would always have the best buildings for their children. They could easily have chosen something else. But, being a nation that loves and honours its children, that is deeply committed to democracy, local accountability and peace, they have chosen, in a way that we apparently have not, to build schools that fit their children and are pleasing to them and supportive of their development.