Debating school typologies

As I’ve written before, the challenges and opportunities of increasing height in school environments is being discussed around the nation. The term ‘vertical school’ is not really clearly defined but is generally a small site area school where land pressures demand the building must be more than two or three stories. While some schools may have a few multi-storey buildings on site, vertical schools need to uniquely solve problems of high density, including appropriate amounts of outdoor learning and play space, and vertical transportation of many small children.

Last week, Learning Environments Queensland ran a debate on the merits and disadvantages of vertical schooling, with two architects, two teachers and two students sharing their views on the future of our schooling types. The debating format was really informative. Even with an issue that I know a fair bit about and have recently studied, I still learnt quite a bit from hearing the opposing views of different stakeholders.

Those opposing vertical schools proclaimed they were expensive, inconvenient for student travel, and required extreme engineering and servicing solutions which detrimentally affect the cost and complexity of construction. Interestingly, the team also shared some statistics about the demography of the inner city. Most vertical schools are being located within inner city dense urban centres, apparently to accommodate the increasing numbers of people living in these places. Although according to the figures, the highest percentages of people moving in to these areas are wealthy DINKs, or young couples getting their foot on the property ladder – in other words, not many school-aged residents. But its hard to know if this is just a consequence of the current situation – if there are better facilities ie schools in dense inner urban areas, will more families move to, settle, and remain, there? If you build it, will they come, but more importantly, stay? As land scarcity pushes more people into smaller areas governments are going to need to invest in more infrastructure to ensure they can stay long-term.

We heard about the idealistic merits of vertical schooling – utilising every spare inch of land as a learning space, tackling childhood obesity through forced exercise, and creating opportunities for chance encounters and incidental interaction between different age groups. As more work places are relocating to large multi-storey buildings, this typology also provides an opportunity for students to experience the world of work before they leave their safe school home. One of the downfalls we often hear about is the lack of school oval. There are numerous examples of how schools have combatted this issue (ovals on the roof, numerous smaller play spaces, sharing nearby community facilities for example). When you actually look at a typical school though – how often do you use the whole oval? Students like doing different things in their break times – some run around with a football, some develop imaginative games in small groups, some sit and read by themselves. Considering the large area footprint and maintenance cost of a whole school oval, you do have to wonder if this is actually a functional requirement, or just a romanticised hark back to our urban sprawl past.

Co-locating schools with other facilities like community centres or aged care, and inner-city schools using the city’s opportunities for learning (eg art gallery or library or court chambers) has amazing potential for engaging student’s curiosity. In a time when so much of what we know about learning, understanding and creativity is changing so quickly, the ability to embrace different learning spaces is exciting. With changing family structures, students are looking for places to study for longer hours in the day, and as noted above it is not just school-aged students living in the area, who could benefit from learning opportunities. Vertical schools can make a huge difference in this space, with open shared access allowing them to truly embrace lifelong learning.

At the end of the session the audience lined up along a continuum of where we felt our opinion lied in response to the arguments we had heard. This was difficult, with a nice big bulge around the three-quarter mark towards the benefits of vertical schooling. But there are still some elements of vertical schooling that sit uneasily, and it is clear that these schools need to be designed as more than a school – as a community hub, as a vibrant culture, as a place for indoor and outdoor learning, as a collaborative nexus for students and industry. I for one look forward to seeing how different states decide to action this in the future.

Prior to the debate we visited the new outdoor learning area at Redeemer Lutheran College. This space was designed for, and by, the early childhood students. What a great space!

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