Exclusive: Inside Melbourne’s new multi-million dollar schools

Heralding “a new era” in school design, the Victorian state government recently committed to plan, fund and build four new inner Melbourne schools.

One of those schools – Richmond Secondary College – is being conceptualised as a 24/7 community centre to meet the demands of a booming population in a densely populated area.

While there is no exact figure for the school, the Labor government has pledged $10m towards its construction, which is being overseen by architecture company, Hayball.

“The Government made a $10 million election commitment to fund the first stage of Richmond High School. $1 million was allocated in the 2015-16 Budget to commence planning,” Steve Tolley, a spokesman for the Victorian Department of Education, told The Educator.

“The remainder of the funding will be considered as part of future Budget deliberations.”

Richard Leonard, director of Hayball architecture, told The Educator how the new multi-million dollar school will provide for its community. He explained how the school will respond to the need for more education facilities to cater for families living in the area, a suburb which is growing by almost 3,000 people per year.

“Right now there is a committee of about two dozen people, including principals, staff members and community representatives, who are busily finalising the school’s brief,” Leonard said.

Hayball is also designing a new school in South Melbourne which will cater to some of its community’s most important needs.

“We had to ask : ‘what are some of the things that people living in this area need the school to provide?’ After considering the community’s needs we decided the school would be reconceptualised as a community facility,” he said.

“Education will of course be a major part of the facility, but it will also include a maternal child health centre, an early learning centre as well as libraries, art rooms and music spaces that the community can use.”

He added the design had recognised the community’s interest in combining early centres and primary schools, which has also been a recent focus of the state’s education department.

“When you get the opportunity to join them up it’s fantastic because you get that transition of kids from an early age through,” Leonard said.

“It has education benefits in terms of early detection and prevention of learning difficulties. These can be dealt with by the early learning centre into the primary school, or vice versa. This will provide wonderful opportunities.”

Leonard said that understanding the vision, objectives and pedagogy of a school were crucial elements in its design.

He referred to a recent article in The Age which questioned the wisdom of open plan classrooms, saying that it “used a problem that one particular school had to undermine the principle of open plan classrooms”.

“It’s worth taking a step back and looking at what schools were doing a few decades ago, because we went through open plan classrooms in the 1970s. The reason why it failed back then was because the technologies and the pedagogies hadn’t developed in line with design thinking,” he said.

“I don’t think the teaching profession was well equipped for it at the time. It was developed through some thinking, particularly from the UK. It fell apart because the designs at the time weren’t well thought through and the pedagogy hadn’t caught up yet.”

However, Leonard said big changes in technology and learning over time had encouraged educators to evolve their teaching practices to deal with more research and project-based learning.

“That demands a very different set of circumstances. One of the approaches has been to take down walls and create open plan classrooms, but I think we’ve probably evolved beyond that,” he said.

“It’s not just about open plan classrooms. That’s just one response. We prefer to see it as purposefully designed teaching spaces, some of which might be open plan classrooms and some of which might be semi-enclosed.”

Leonard said Hayball had worked alongside education specialist, Dr Julia Atkins, to improve research into classroom design and educational practice.

“Dr Atkins says the best way to capture the best idea of the contemporary education environment was to consider it as a non-hierarchical network of seamlessly interconnected spaces,” he said.

“The unfortunate thing is that the open plan classroom is the term used to capture all the negative things, but when you drill down into the successful contemporary education models currently, they’re much more purposeful spaces.

“These environments provide a wide variety of spaces, settings, and opportunities for kids, whereas an open plan classroom in itself is basically just a classroom without walls.”