Inside a brand-new $100 million school in Peterborough, England, about 80 miles north of London, kids are on display behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls much the way shoes are exhibited in mall windows. With classrooms fronting a central atrium, fellow students and visitors are encouraged to look on. This exposure is part of the unique educational approach here at Thomas Deacon Academy, which combines a huge student body of 2,200 with an emphasis on individual responsibility. So far that unlikely mixture seems to work, thanks in part to the design of the school itself, a three-story, 63,000-square-foot star-shaped structure by Foster + Partners.
“The building mirrors our approach to schooling, so as you walk around, there is not the usual structure and constraints,” says Alan McMurdo, Thomas Deacon’s CEO and principal. “We don’t have bells or corridors or break time when 2,000 kids descend on the toilets. We treat people differently, and the building is key to that.” Students can use the school anytime between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., though classes for most end at 2:30 p.m. There is no playground or recess or even a bell to mark the end of the 90-minute classes. Students are grouped not by their ages (which range from 11 to 17), but by subject. Science, humanities, arts, technology, communications, and math each have their own “college.”
The architects ran with that organizing principle, dividing the academy into six separate areas. Instead of the long isolated corridors found in most schools, each college has its own three-story V-shaped wing that adjoins a central atrium, giving the building its distinct form. “We wanted to break the school down into smaller and smaller spaces to help students feel more at home,” says Foster + Partners’ Paul Kalkhoven, who led the project. Each college has classrooms spread over three floors and a study area that students can use however they choose. In addition to interior views, all of the spaces overlook the countryside. These are design decisions that would seem to invite chaos, but so far students have responded constructively. “If you want to go somewhere to talk, you have to go to one of the colleges,” says 17-year-old David Lesiw, a communications student. “That gives the conversations more of a sense of purpose. If there is a group of people talking, they are talking about doing work.”
Taking such a self-directed approach to education with so many students under one roof is quite a risk: mayhem could easily have reigned. But by using glass walls and exposed walkways, and by placing an open-air library and art studio in the middle of the atrium, the architects have created a school where a few teachers can keep an eye on hundreds of students. “There is a certain amount of social control in a discreet way,” Kalkhoven says. “Wherever you are in the building, you can be seen.”
And that, according to Steve Warburton, the academy’s director of innovation and development, makes the building the best teaching aid that a school with Thomas Deacon’s philosophy could hope for. “Students are aware that they can be observed and have improved the way they behave toward each other,” he says. “Many are really starting to flourish here.”