Design for Learning.

Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and we are delighted to be unveiling a wonderful new building for our Silver Jubilee. In nearly a decade this is the only substantial new permanent addition to our campus and it’s one we’ve paid for entirely ourselves; through a combination of capital reserves and borrowing. Over the years we’ve put up some good quality temporary buildings to increase our capacity as student numbers have risen, but until now, nothing which can be described as a major long term enhancement of the student experience.

At a time when there is precious little capital on offer from the government to renew the college estate, we wanted to make sure that whatever investment we made would address our most urgent needs. We had very high expectations for this project given that there might not be another one for a while. We haven’t been disappointed; our new building exceeds all the ambitions we had for it and has already transformed the college for students, staff and visitors alike.

How did we set about doing this? First we refreshed our campus masterplan; this is a blueprint for completely rebuilding the college campus over the long term. The plan has been approved by our governors and is phased, with each of the 5 phases able to stand on its own without depending on the next. We know we can’t afford to deliver the whole plan without generating income or substantial public investment but we wanted to make a strong start with the first phase.

We identified our key requirements for Phase 1 after an objective survey of the condition of all our facilities and widespread consultation with students, staff and other stakeholders about what we needed most. We knew how much we could afford to spend and the consensus was that we needed 2 main things:

  • Much larger and better library and study facilities for students. Our existing library was under enormous pressure and really needed to be 3 times bigger.
  • A much better entrance and reception area with more generous circulation and social space. Our entrance was very congested and thousands of people were expected to enter and leave the building straight from a narrow pavement on a busy road.

Very early on in developing the brief, it became clear that this new building could be an important addition to the streetscape and reveal to the outside world more of the excitement of what happens inside the college as well as creating a better public realm around our entrance. We also realised that we would have to demolish our Drama studio and this gave us the opportunity to create a bespoke theatre and performance space in the new building. This led us to the idea of a very transparent double height ground floor which would act as a window into the college with the new learning resource centre (LRC) above it over several floors.

Our brilliant architects Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH) worked closely with us on the brief and developed an excellent design which has created beautiful and functional spaces in what was the somewhat constrained edge of the campus; with various level changes and connections between new and old buildings to contend with. We made every effort to be good clients by sticking to our aims, making timely decisions and avoiding changing our minds. The way SEH listened to us and responded to the challenges of the site was really exemplary.

At the heart of the project was the student learning experience. We based the design of our new LRC on what we know about how our students learn and how they want to study. Students themselves were fully involved and we can genuinely say that we now have an LRC designed around their needs.

The sixth form college setting sits between the more regimented school learning environment and that of a university where learners have much more autonomy about when, where and how to study. Funding is very tight and teaching hours are limited, so English sixth formers have a lot more time for independent study than their counterparts in other countries. We need to help them to make the transition from closely managed school children to mature, autonomous undergraduates. They will be spending a substantial amount of time in the Learning Resource Centre; whether working individually or in groups. We were clear that our LRC should feel like a university library and the configuration and layout of furniture and resources should naturally suggest how students might best use them.

The day we opened the new LRC to students for the first time this March, we watched with interest to see how they would use the new areas. It was wonderful to see students immediately ‘get it’ with very little prompting. All the careful design and layout of the spaces over 3 floors really paid off; project rooms, group study tables, silent study areas, soft furnishings for reading and all the associated technology – it all made sense to the people they were designed for and they settled into their new LRC as if they’d never known anything else.

Opening mid-year has meant that everyone can remember how things were ‘before’. The feedback from students has been fantastic and in the weeks since it opened we’ve seen the number of visits to the LRC more than double. Spring is turning to summer and as we move towards the public exam season, our students work into the evening bathed in sunlight filtered through the tree canopy and benefit from an aspirational vista right across East London to Canary Wharf and the City beyond.

Adjectives like ‘inspirational’ and ‘transformational’ are overused, but in this case they really do accurately describe the impact of our great new building.

Based on a talk given at the Education Construction Network (ECN) Breakfast Event on 27th April 2017.

More about NewVIc: The college of the future (March 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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