Key considerations when designing a school

12th July 2022

Designing a school is always a team exercise. This doesn’t just mean our internal teams of architects and designers at IDP, it also means collaborating with stakeholders within the school and the local authority. We are proud to have played a role in successful school design projects in Coventry and the wider West Midlands region, which has led to us building strong relationships with key partners with an interest in creating practical but inspiring spaces that support the education of students and the wellbeing of staff in a fresh learning environment. To achieve this, we rigorously interrogate and respond to all elements of the brief at each distinct stage of the design process.

Our Architects and Landscape teams have worked with a wide variety of education establishments, from primary and secondary to schools for children with special needs, alongside experience of further education and university environments. Our work covers improvements within existing environments and designing from scratch. Whether it’s a new library, art block, humanities, or science department, we apply the same rigorous three stage approach.

Understanding the needs of the school

Gaining an understanding of the school requirements and any issues it faces; and then marrying those with the planning requirements is crucial to every architectural design. Schools have very particular requirements and our team is experienced in working in close collaboration with the stakeholders. We understand the positive outcomes that result from listening to advice and uncovering the opportunities for improvement when we work with expert individuals in the education setting. With this context, we ensure we comply with all relevant building bulletin guidelines, Government guides for schools and building regulations. Our architectural plans need to reflect the opportunities and constraints of each school. For example:

  • The school’s specialisms will have an impact on the design
  • The way the space is to be divided, for example, a school may want more general classrooms, or they might require additional technology or science labs, or they might need both.
  • Adjacencies are important so our designs must get the right spaces in the right places and to maximise building design and use efficiencies. Key way finding is also incredibly important.
  • What is the appropriate accessibility from indoor to outdoor spaces? We take account of the daily practicalities in our school designs but we also keep fire safety regulations and lockdown scenarios front of mind.
  • Good design is about access to natural light, understanding the micro-climate of the site and orientating the building to the optimum position.
  • All stakeholders need consideration so our plans include staff accommodation, admin blocks and welcome areas. It is vital that these are appealing as they play a role in attracting staff and families to the school.




Designing the indoor space

State-of-the-art design isn’t always what a school or college needs for its buildings and we keep this in mind during the design stage. We are also aware that it is vital that the construction stage has as little impact as possible on the day to day running of the school. Our team keeps up to date on research into the way architecture in schools can affect the wellbeing of staff and students so we seek innovative approaches to the design of learning spaces and other facilities and we select the materials we use with care. We are fully conversant with the pressures on school budgets and understand the need to keep per capita spend on running costs to an affordable level. We aim to balance these important considerations and provide schools with the following aspects in their designs:

  • Natural ventilation where possible
  • Natural light
  • Zoning of space – this is particularly important as schools seek to increase income by letting spaces out in evening or they are managing costs carefully by not heating whole school
  • Efficient building management system (BMS)
  • Ongoing running cost – the M&E analysis helps school governors and other stakeholders to understand the difference between capital costs and ongoing running costs
  • Robustness of materials
  • IT infrastructure
  • Future proof the design – we try to give long-term adaptability, with short-term flexibility. This affects the way we position walls, furniture and IT infrastructure in the design
  • Indoor spaces should where possible have physical or visual connection to the outside
  • Ensuring finishes are appropriate as this affects the atmosphere of a space but practicality is crucial – finishes must be easy to clean, vibrant, appropriate for the area.


Accessibility for Education – our professional approach

Every education setting has a legal requirement to provide equal access to all students. Getting the access arrangements right at the planning stage ensures this aspect of your building project is effective and cost efficient. The context of the school makes a difference to the access our architects design for but the result always has a positive impact on the lived experience of people within the school.

  • In every project, we consider the adjacencies & efficiencies of the floor layout. Our designs will minimise distances and hiding places and we focus on creating open space rather than corridors. The aim is to develop social spaces rather than setting up opportunities for friction in smaller corridors. Our response to area guidelines for these spaces also keeps in mind the net capacity as even a superb design will fall down in the face of over-crowding.
  • Primary school children benefit from having direct access from outside to inside. In Early Years Foundation Stage settings, it is a requirement for children to have the opportunity to develop their learning in indoor and outdoor environments.
  • Accessibility arrangements include features like hand rails, colour coding and using clear shapes to support visually impaired students. Getting the design of the disabled loos right is also essential to accommodate different levels of need. The architects at IDP all go above and beyond in our sensitive and detailed response to these requirements.
  • Ramps and lifts will ensure accessibility for all areas.


Designing outdoor space for a school

Our landscape architects have a deep understanding of the role outdoor space has in shaping the learning environment of a school, college or university. We balance the regulations and budget with creativity and flare to inspire stakeholders whether they are outside making use of the space, or looking out from the inside. The factors that we consider include:

  • Open space – this needs to meet the Building Bulletin Guidelines. We ensure we understand what the school wants to get from their outdoor spaces and we keep in mind the need for all year round pitches (for secondary), play areas, social places.
  • Schools see outdoor pitches as marketing opportunity to families but also sports facilities can be hired out to generate additional income.
  • Planning considerations will affect pitch lighting and rebound boards so it is important to take account of this during the design stage.
  • Local community engagement is important, particularly if a school is increasing student numbers. Families and neighbours will be concerned about there being enough space for parking, drop and collection. They will also be worried about additional traffic so our architects factor this into the design.
  • Overlooking is concern for schools. We recommend boundary treatments and security elements to minimise the impact on viewing.
  • Safeguarding is a key concern for OFSTED so it is a priority for school leaders and governors. Our plans take into account the access into and around the site, controls on the gates and appropriate fencing.
  • Passive supervision – ensuring there are open spaces allows staff to see all children.
  • Noise – this is important for schools and colleges near busy roads, airports etc. The IDP team works with acoustic engineers to design in features to mitigate the impact of noise on the learning environment.
  • Natural landscapes support wellbeing and encourage creativity and learning so we design in natural spaces which can also support wildlife.
  • Cycle routes and pedestrian ways into school allow flexibility in travel and support schools in nurturing pupils’ health.
  • We engage in clear conversations in schools so we can create a balance between security and efficiency as students transition in and out of buildings.
  • Canopies and sheltered areas benefit people and nature. These can incorporate seating areas and study areas to create mini forest school educational experiences for pupils on site.

Our education architects work across our internal teams so you gain access to the IDP Landscape team to maximise your outdoor space,

Case study – Sherbourne Fields School, Coventry

Sherbourne Fields is an all-age special school for pupils with a broad spectrum of needs including physical disabilities, medical conditions and learning needs. We were commissioned as the first phase of two, to reimagine the school’s redundant courtyard space, designing the soft and hard landscaping, taking into great consideration access points and lighting in order to create a safe and tranquil space for the children to play. The second phase included the redesign and refurbishment of the swimming pool facilities creating a clean, fresh space linked to the new terrace via bi-fold doors. Sensory stimulation was key to our design including mood lighting, a sound system and optional full blackout to create a fully immersive sensory experience.

IDP subsequently developed a masterplan for the school site and are currently developing the designs for two new classrooms, alongside a new main entrance that will also link the main school to the sixth form block.



Head Teacher Shivaun Duffy Moriarty said: “From the initial consultation through to the hand over IDP were consistently brilliant in their approach to these projects. They listened carefully and understood our brief – only enhancing our initial ideas with a creative flair, attention to detail and professional conduct throughout this entire process. I would highly recommend IDP for any architectural or landscaping projects; our school has been transformed into a magical and accessible learning space for all ages and abilities”