Jonathan Ellis-Miller’s opinion: Are flat-pack schools a short-term fix?


Partner, Jonathan Ellis-Miller was invited to express his opinions in a debate on school standardisation for the Friday 23 March 2012 edition of BD magazine. Using the Catmose Campus project to illustrate his case, Jonathan shares his views of how standardisation does not compromise long-term, high-quality and adaptable design.

NO, flat-pack schools are NOT a short-term fix…

“Standardisation in education isn’t new. The National Curriculum, introduced in 1988, sought to standardise taught content in schools and thereby raise standards across the country. Nor is standardisation a novel architectural concept: it could be argued that standardisation is the tradition of the vernacular. There’s uniformity in Georgian squares and rectories, Victorian terraces and even London Victorian Board Schools. None can argue, however, that any of these educational or architectural models lack interest, character or an ability to change and adapt with time.

Bespoke products tend to bear the stamp of a strong individual - whether an architect or a client - and are thereby vulnerable to becoming outdated. Fads or egos rarely solve practical problems: to quote Le Corbusier architects should be “organisers or space not drawing board stylists”. This is particularly the case in a school where change is a way of life, with a constant churn of staff, pupils, curriculum content, technology and pedagogies. An architectural dream for one headmaster is a nightmarish straightjacket for another who has to live with a bespoke building from another time.

High quality standardised solutions, like the national curriculum, embody an egalitarian approach and can fulfil a wide range of needs, teaching styles and functions over a long period. A good standard building must by definition be inherently adaptable and allow a school to fulfil its current and future purposes. Unlike bespoke designs which are really only ever prototypes, standardised designs permit measurement, analysis, refinement and improvement.

At Catmose College, Rutland, we pointed to the possibility of a successful standard product that is inherently flexible, adaptable and creative. Contrast this with the Stirling Prize winning Evelyn Grace Academy, bearing the unmistakable mark of a bespoke architect and her sponsor and representing an immovable snapshot in time.

Standardisation done well, offers quality, equality, economy and, importantly, long term solutions.”

26 March 2012