Learning in the Inner City

Recently I’ve read some news articles about the ‘failures’ of inner-city (vertical) schools. These perceived failures are due to the lack of outdoor play space and the time required for students to go up and down stairs or lifts to move between their learning spaces, eating in to their learning time. This opinion, though, belies the fact that our cities cannot just keep growing outwards and onwards. As more people are choosing to live within inner-city areas, then the infrastructure required to accommodate them, like appropriate schooling, needs to be designed with efficient land use in mind. Infill development of public infrastructure will be required in the future to accommodate the increasing density of residential developments, and people should not feel they have to live ‘out in the burbs’ to access innovative and adequate government schools.

I recently visited two such innovative inner-city schools in Melbourne, as part of LEaRN’s Talking Spaces symposium. Each were constructed on very small (between 2 and 3 hectare) sites, and were developed within inner-city areas. One immediate benefit I could see to this type of development is that the schools were limited to 650 students. In comparison, most other ‘standard’ high schools are generally designed to accommodate well over 1200 students, with some approaching 3000. The student experience of being part of a small cohort, rather than a ‘small fish in a big pond’ surely has benefit to students wellbeing and cohesion within their community. This is the benefit that can be achieved by locating many small schools, rather than fewer larger-site schools.

The two schools I visited, Richmond High School by Hayball Architects, and Prahran High Schoolby Gray Puksand, both dealt with their small sites in innovative ways. No, they did not have full size sports ovals and they weren’t single storey, but they were carefully considered and appropriately scaled for learning. Richmond High School is located right next door to a massive grassed oval, which surely makes sense from an economical land use point of view – how many public ovals lie mostly dormant during school hours? At least this way facilities are better utilised. In contrast the beautiful active learning landscape on the top of Prahran High School allows for sitting, playing, and even running with a 100m running track connecting the play space and the indoor covered gym. Both schools also included balcony spaces off the classrooms, so there was more than enough accessible and varied outdoor learning and play areas.

Prahran High School includes two separate stairs/terraces for efficient movement of students between learning spaces. These circulation spaces are very large and open, providing wayfinding access, movement of many students at once, and additional relief spaces for informal gatherings. Richmond High School has one strikingly bright large stair/assembly zone through the centre of the space with a mix of transparency and opaqueness as an active space against the quieter subdued learning zones.

Currently both schools are very new, with only the first Year 7 cohorts to explore and try out the space. So it was difficult to get a sense of how the spaces would work with the additional student numbers. Each design deals with student movement differently, which will impact how the expanding population uses the site. At Prahran High School, specialised spaces (library, science, food tech etc) were stacked on one half of each floor, with the general learning spaces stacked on the other half, across the central atrium from each other. This meant most students stayed in their learning community for most of the day, and moved across to specialist zones as required. Similarly, at Richmond High School, most of the students day is spent in their home base, and they head to central specialist rooms on a rotational basis.

The general learning areas at both schools were an interesting point of difference – the spaces at Richmond were very open with dividing furniture and a variety of layered small and large settings for different activities. The spaces at Prahran were more contained, with large glass panels providing connection and accessibility, and multi-connected central rooms for flexible work. It is good to see that both schools identified and appreciated current theories of differentiated learning modalities and accommodated these in their own way, each to suit their specific site context.

Our cities are changing, and our future cities will need to adapt to accommodate increasing infill residential development and the benefits of a diverse inner-city population which includes families. I believe these two examples of inner-city schools are innovative and efficient examples of the positive steps forward that are available within this typology, and provide a scalable prototype of what the future of our schooling could be.

Richmond High School

Prahran High School

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