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Architectus

The role of schools in future communities

National Education Sector Leader Mark van den Enden breaks downs the ‘sticky elements’ every contemporary school must have to act as the glue of communities.

Australian cities are undergoing a fundamental shift in the role and function of social infrastructure, particularly schools within our communities. Between the 1960s and 1980s, schools were thought of as islands, or distinct and separate from communities: remote from the rhythms of a community and its daily activities.

In many suburbs schools were separated from neighbourhood activity centres and not seen as complementary in function or use. This planning approach, thankfully no longer employed, offered little or no opportunity for connection and engagement with the broader community.

The present day looks markedly different. From 2008 onwards, since the AUD$16.2 billion Building the Education Revolution began an ambitious rollout of school infrastructure, each state government in Australia has launched their own busy program of building new schools that have a strong focus of community integration.

Gen Z, a moniker which means ‘generation now’, requires access to learning environments that differ from those of the past. School Infrastructure NSW, the Victorian School Building Authority, the Department of Education and SA Education have all evolved with a specific mandate to improve the education outcomes for the citizens of tomorrow.

Architectus in joint venture with K2LD, was selected as principal Design Consultant for the construction, associated works for the Victorian Growth Areas Schools Project (GASP). 

Schools – whether inner urban verticals or large templated bundles in growth areas – have significantly changed, both in their education offer and their place in the communities they serve. Islands no more, they play a critical role in new suburbs by establishing a community’s identity.

Rather than keeping the public out, schools are increasingly inviting the community in, creating connections that extend well beyond the learners’ school years to act as the glue and connective tissue of communities by building enduring connections.

This makes me think: what are the components of a contemporary school?

Many new schools are defined by an administration building designed for many functions. The administration building is a concierge point. A counselling point. A multiple support agency touch point for vaccination and Maternal and Child Health services. A professional development hub. A community hub. A reading recovery zone for educationally disadvantaged and learning-disabled students. A best start initiative around kindergarten and school co-location. And, hopefully not often, a disaster recovery centre.

New Schools 2021, Early Childcare Centre

Each individual part of the administration building must be flexible to adapt to its community’s need in any given moment. With each community and education catchment being different, the administration building can be the foundation of an inclusive community that transcends age groups and cultural barriers to ultimately build and nourish social capital. In many respects, the administration building should be viewed as the school’s entry portal: open and transparent, welcoming to members of the school community and visitors alike.

A companion building is the community hall, which facilitates interaction between the school and the broader community – used during and after school hours by various local groups. Like the administration building, it has multiple functions and hybrid uses.

In a school setting, one can often see a school assembly, canteen, rehearsal areas and a physical education class co-existing in a counter-intuitive calm. In a community setting, large and small community groups and sports clubs engage the building, extending the school’s reach, sustaining further connection and enriching social capital. This even extends to participating in elections and enjoying an aptly named ‘democracy sausage’.

Conceived as an anchor to the growing community of Point Cook, the bold three-storey Homestead Senior Secondary Collage sits confidently on the main road to newly established residential areas.

Learning buildings form the final piece of the puzzle and exist in many forms, from general purpose learning to DATS (Design, Art, Technology and Science) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) buildings. All are underpinned by an education design strategy with the core objective to create diverse, purposeful and collaborative learning environments. In many of these spaces the intention is to give the users choice by providing multiple learning settings that can be used in numerous ways.

For students, this choice provides opportunities to develop independent decision-making skills and encourages them to select the setting, tools, resources, technologies and furniture that best suit their current task or learning investigation. For teachers, choice provides opportunities to differentiate learning outcomes for individuals. They can teach independently and collaboratively, moving seamlessly between the roles of instructor and roaming facilitator. As one-fifth of the Australian population lives with a disability, inclusion has also become a focus in the process of school design and ensures, as a fundamental premise, the rights of inclusion for all learners. School design is now driven by inclusively for all learning cohorts regardless of need. Considering all this, what does the future hold?

The significant GASP project involved ten new schools which link growth areas through new school infrastructure and promote community connection across educational sectors and providers.

Due to COVID-19, population growth as a result of net migration has paused to a large extent. However, we can expect it to resume by close to two per cent on average, with some local government areas experiencing growth of four to five per cent in the eastern states. It is fair to say we can expect the development of new schools and other social infrastructure to continue in earnest to accommodate our burgeoning population.

As a typology, schools are yet to fully explore carbon neutrality, new learning modalities, early learning centre integration, and future dynamic hybrids. This presents an opportunity for our profession, and for future generations of learners, to embrace a more sustainable model that benefits everybody. No longer outposts, schools are the thriving heart of existing and emerging communities.

A version of this article first appeared in Indesign #84 and on INDESIGNLIVE.