School places - a pressing need, and a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine school

By Tom Beresford, Trends and Research

Lack of school places is a pressing and relentless issue that requires swift and immediate action. Yet it shouldn’t just be a case of more and bigger schools. We need to be innovative and smart about what these schools look and feel like, but importantly what they are trying to achieve. ‘Micro’ schools and ‘schools-within-schools’ offer a real and exciting alternative.

At any soft play in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of the ball-pits and slippery slides, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be conversations about where children will be going to school come September. Needless to say, this hot topic dominates the mouths and ears of parents, and is one of high stakes, frustration and all too often disappointment and distress.

Parent with a child between the ages of 3-4 and 10-11 will be fully aware that the UK is facing a crisis of school places. In July 2015, Government Statistics showed that by 2019, the primary school population was set to rise by 6 per cent compared with 2015 and by 8 per cent by 2024. They also showed the secondary-age population increasing by 20 per cent by 2024.

Last week, an article in Times Education Supplement (TES) highlighted how “this year's statistics show that since last year there are more pupils, in fewer schools. There are now 8,559,540 pupils in 24,288 schools. In 2015 there were 8,438,145 pupils in 24,317 schools.”

The implications are that schools are getting bigger. A sea of Titan schools and supersize classrooms are on the horizon. Already, the number of young children crammed into ‘supersize’ classes of over 30 pupils has sailed past 100,000 – the highest for 15 years.

It is a pressing and relentless issue that requires swift and immediate action so as to not cripple an education system already experiencing rapid increases in demand.

Yet it shouldn't just be a case of more and bigger schools. We need to be innovative and smart about what these schools look and feel like, but importantly what they are trying to achieve. The pressing need for more school places is also a once in a generation opportunity to rethink how we do school; school that’s fit for the future.

In urban areas around the world, a new model of school is gaining popularity. Micro schools like the Alt Schools in San Francisco and New York, or the A+ Unlimited Potential schools in Houston, Texas, are reimagining how we create flexible learning environments in spaces of increasingly limited space. But importantly, reimagining learning spaces has come hand-in-hand with redesigning learning experiences and challenging what the purpose of schooling really is.

Similarly, some schools looking to expand their intake are choosing to do so by opening a school within their existing school. RSA Academy in Tipton are doing just that, extending their KS3 cohort but also creating a sort of lab school for developing innovative new practice. The creation of a separate, self-contained school community that has a unique ethos, organisation, and follows a distinct curriculum within the existing school is a great model for developing new designs for learning that are increasingly responsive to the changing demands of the future. Stanley Park High School - the 2016 TES School Awards secondary school of the year - adopts the school-within-a-school model (featured in The Engaging Schools handbook), providing a fertile landscape for it’s own innovation and research centre.

As the urgency for more places grows, it’s paramount that those leading and designing education in this country don’t miss this opportunity for reimagining and redesigning school. It can’t just be business as usual. We can’t just sleepwalk into a new world, with the same old education apparatus.

Here at Innovation Unit’s School Design Lab, we see design thinking as a vehicle for reimagining school and learning. We want to work with new and existing schools to (re)design extraordinary learning that is both learner-centric and future-focused, and that makes the most of this once in a generation opportunity.