Schools beyond silos (sorry Gonski)

The Australian Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling – Final Report was released earlier this week. The Review was chaired by respected businessman, philanthropist and UNSW Chancellor, David Gonski AC. And while we might refer to the Review as the Gonski report, it’s worth noting that he was aided by an impressive panel comprising Ken Boston AO, Carmen Lawrence, Bill Scales AO, Peter Tannock AM and Kathryn Greiner AO.

So why should anyone interested in the design of cities read a report into education funding? Because alongside a critique of funding options, indexation and ways to engage parents in their child’s education, there’s a call for better co-ordination of school infrastructure including a more whole-of-government approach to the design, planning and building of our schools.

The Review recommends a body to work across the private and public sector for better school planning. A ‘School Planning Authority’ is recommended in each state. Access to funding would be conditional on approval of this Authority.

Sound idea. But why segregate school planning from communities more broadly? Aren’t our best schools those that integrate with shops and housing, after hours sport and weekend playground? Absolutely this needs a lens that looks outside the preserve of a single department or sector. So, cross sectoral yes. But must – must – be developed hand-in-glove with surrounding land use, transport, support and services. Can this be done by a ‘School Planning Authority’? Possibly. But does that mean the answer to more integrated healthcare is a Health Planning Authority? No, the answer lies in more integrated government.

The challenge to design, plan, activate and fund a creative and welcoming place for our kids is the same challenge as any part of a successful precinct, town or city. Take the increasing interest that Health agencies are taking in promoting cycling and walking on our streets and urban spaces (along with NGO’s like the Heart Foundation). This is about delivering impact beyond a facility. And, in South Australia, the work led by Minister John Hill to deliver a program of ‘Health in All Policies’ shows that collaboration across agencies can occur beyond facilities planning for a single site.

The ambition of a ‘School Planning Authority’ comes from a desire to move beyond usual practice where a state Treasury or Education department might be tempted to think about a school separate to the bus route that links to home, access to local shops or open green space that’s safe after hours, or where the contract method prevents better ideas from being added during construction. In short, it’s a call to put good design back into school planning.

A well designed school contributes to a child’s capacity to learn. Research from the UK suggests a child’s grades can improve by around 11% above those in a poorly designed environment. For a Review aimed at improving the performance of our kids, and our schools, 11% is an impressive figure.

Good design is about good investment. So how can we make sure that our schools are designed and planned beyond any one ‘silo’, with a child’s learning at the centre? A model from the UK might be worth a look here. When stimulus money was on offer through the Building Schools of the Future fund, the UK government sought a way to manage quality. Working with the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE – now merged with the Design Council), government there was smart enough to work with CABE to provide independent expertise to peer review the work of agencies, architects and builders through a program of Design Review. Importantly, the release of funds was dependent on a ‘tick’ from this body.

The independent design review program used 10 criteria* that make for good design in schools, including;
A high quality design that inspires users to learn
A sustainable approach to design, construction and environmental servicing
Good use of the site, balancing the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and cars and enhancing the school’s presence in the community
Buildings and grounds that are welcoming to both the school and the community while providing adequate security
Good organization of spaces in plan and section, easily legible and fully accessible
Internal spaces that are well-proportioned, fit for purpose and meet the needs of the curriculum
Flexible design to allow for short term changes of layout and use, and long term expansion or contraction
Good environmental conditions throughout including optimum levels of natural light and ventilation for different activities
Well designed external spaces offering a variety of different settings for leisure, learning and sport
A simple palette of attractive materials, detailed carefully to be durable and easily maintained and to age gracefully
(*source: ‘Creating Excellent Schools’, CABE)

By providing this review early, modifications can be made and policy or departmental roadblocks can be manoeuvred out of the way.

It’s clear the Gonski Review has identified many schools are planned in isolation from the world around them. It’s clear the Review believes this is adversely impacting on the ability for our children to learn effectively. It’s clear the Review is searching for a path to more integrated decision making across functions of government (curiously also the first objective of COAG’s Communique on cities from December 2009), and it’s understandable that a review in to education might call for a ‘super body’ to shepherd better outcomes in schools. But we need to recognise this is a challenge for all the ingredients that make a good ‘place’. The answer is not to isolate any one arm of government on their own fast track, but to better tune the whole system if we want to encourage a ‘people first’ approach to the design and planning of our towns and cities.


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