Doing Schools Differently: Education Design for Flexible Learning

by John Ward, Director

According to the ABS, one in five young Australians still leaves school before the end of Year 12. These early school leavers are disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds, including low-socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous backgrounds and regional and remote areas.

The mainstream schooling approach has not worked for these students in the past. A different approach is needed.

Education is fundamental. Not only does it benefit the individual; there is a significant flow-on effect to society. According to the Productivity Commission Report 2013: Deep and Persistent Disadvantage in Australia education improves their employment prospects and earning capacity, which in turn has been linked to improved health, civic and social engagement.

As a consequence, Australian governments agreed to increase the proportion of young people completing Year 12 (or equivalent) from 83.5% in 2009 to 90% by 2015. Alternative or flexible learning programs that cater specifically for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds play a vital role in helping to achieve that target.

For over 10 years, Fulton Trotter Architects has been working with Youth Plus – a division of Edmund Rice Education Australia – to create a successful network of Flexible Learning Centres (FLC) throughout Queensland, and have now been engaged to design our first centres in New South Wales and Victoria.

As architects, the very specific need of these centres challenges our conventional notion of a ‘school’. It forced us to cast aside traditional, pre-conceived notions and start from scratch, exploring new educational design possibilities at their most fundamental level.

The design of the school is crucial. Anything too shiny or too big is reminiscent of the traditional educational forms that students have previously rejected; but at the same time, they want something special so they feel like they’ve been invested in.

It’s about creating something new and fun, that also feels “lived in”.

Having now designed over a dozen Flexible Leaning Centres, we’ve learnt the key elements that make these schools a success: community, social inclusion, and activity based learning. The low-set buildings spaces are designed to reject institutional grandeur. Instead their non-traditional learning spaces include music and art studios, trade workshops, climbing walls, conversation pits, withdrawal spaces, roof top terraces, as well as medical, legal and social support, and child care facilities.

To create a sense of familiarity, every site requires a unique design that responds to the architecture of the local area.

The newly-built Noosa Flexible Leaning Centre was designed to reflect the local beach shack aesthetic, with low-set pavilions drawing a strong reference to the outdoors through large openings onto verandas and the natural environment.

Similarly, the Wollongong Flexible Leaning Centre façade will reflect the beach-inspired surroundings of the residential area, whilst internally, it takes on a more warehouse look and feel using raw wooden and steel finishes.

As an adaptive re-use of a former mainstream Catholic school building, the North Melbourne Flexible Leaning Centre conceals mostly brickwork in an intriguing mix of industrial and laneway-inspired spaces, as well as a rooftop terrace.

Through the design and material selection, we can successfully deliver an alternative, informal and non-institutional education facility, where students can feel comfortable, supported and included.

Photo: ‘North Melbourne Flexible Learning Centre’ | Photographer: Dorothy Tran