(B.25) "Please miss, can I have a detention?"

The new, improved Kingsdale comprehensive is such fun the pupils won't want to leave.

Jonathan Glancey reports, The Guardian 19 July 2004, Architecture

Is this the Great Court at the British Museum? Can it be the entrance to some grand new European art gallery? No. This is the assembly hall of Kingsdale school in Dulwich, south-east London. Built in the 1950s under the aegis of Leslie Martin (architect of the Royal Festival Hall), Kingsdale was superficially good-looking in its day but suffered most of the usual problems of that era - narrow corridors inadequate staff rooms, classrooms that were too hot in summer, too cold in winter. No wonder it became a struggling comprehensive, classed as a "special measures" school by Ofsted.

Now, though, Kingsdale is in the first phase of a restructuring and renovation programme - and its new courtyard, designed de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM) architects, is the first completed phase. The courtyard is covered in what Alex de Rijke describes as the "world's largest variable-skin ETFE roof"- much the same as the bubble-like textile membrane roof seen at the Eden Project, Cornwall, and the National Space Centre, Leicester, two intriguing and popular buildings designed under the direction of Nicholas Grimshaw.

Chemistry teachers will know that ETFE stands for ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene, a non-stick, self-cleaning fabric that is a better insulator than glass but weighs just a tenth as much. The material is made up of a regular patchwork of pillows that can be pumped up with air on cool days to increase insulation and deflated on hot days to allow the space below to cool more easily. The pillowed membrane is held in place by steel supports. Its life-span is said to be 25 years, after which it can be replaced in a process that promises to be much easier than conventional re-roofing.

At the heart of the courtyard, like an egg in a basket, is a pod-like geodesic auditorium, adorned with artworks by Atelier Van Lieshout, commissioned by the Royal Society for Arts. In other hands than dRMM's, this combination of the latest-generation hi-tech roof and a pod-like meeting room in a landscaped courtyard might have been too artistic for its own good. But this is a handsome and pleasant place to be, lifting the spirit of the school almost effortlessly.

Architecture alone cannot revive the fortunes of a run-down school. Much of Kingsdale's phoenix-like revival is down to its spirited teaching team, led by the energetic Steve Morrison, who took over as head teacher at the end of the 1990s. He has worked seamlessly with School Works, a can-do, not-for-profit educational organisation founded by Hilary Cottam, now working with the Design Council. As far as Cottam is concerned, the latest rash of imprudent, cheapjack PFI schools "would fail a basic test in architecture". She has resuscitated the fundamentally simple idea, understood in the 1950s but forgotten by the 1990s, that good new architecture could make schools efficient and enjoyable - but only if pupils and teachers had a say in the design. "It struck us," Cottam says, "that there was little point in redesigning a school unless you altered its culture."

Cottam teamed up with Kingsdale School, New Labour brains-trust Demos and the Architecture Foundation, a body urging the best in democratic new urban design. Together with the London borough of Southwark and RIBA, they organised an architectural competition won by dRMM, a young practice very much on the rise.

The first task for Morrison and his deputy, Cathy Bryan, was to ask pupils to make an audit of the school - what worked and what didn't. Their comments were fascinating reading. Pupils said they would rather go home than use the school lavatories because they were so disgusting and frightening, but, if they did go home, they probably wouldn't go back to school that day. Girls felt they had no place in the playgrounds because boys took them over to play football. Computer and audio-visual equipment was locked away most of the time for fear of theft. CCTV cameras in corridors emphasised the lack of trust between pupils and teachers. As for public spaces inside the school, pupils wrote things like: "This corridor needs to be trashed."

With the help of School Works and dRMM, pupils, teachers and governors agreed to a revamped plan for the school based around a new internal public square. They wanted corridors to be abolished, decent lavatories and places to meet that would discourage bullying and allow girls and boys to be on equal terms.

The result is quite remarkable. Corridors have gone. Classrooms are now reached directly from the school's covered courtyard. Lockers, designed by the architects but with pupils' input, are no longer concealed in spaces where bullies can dominate. Lavatories are well lit, well ventilated, well designed. Colours are bright.

There is still room for improvement, Morrison admits. The school has struggled to find the money it needs to push the project further. Plans for a sports hall with an allweather pitch and floodlighting have, for the moment, been dropped. Still, Kingsdale has come a long way from its nadir in the late 1990s.

The government, or at least the Department for Education and Skills, has recognised the quality of the project, describing it as "setting new standards for education architecture". Kingsdale has encouraged the department itself to push forward with its encouraging initiative, Schools for the Future, through which it has asked a number of the country's more thoughtful practices to come up with inventive new designs for public sector schools.

Kingsdale, meanwhile, is off the "special measures" list. Once interest in lessons was low and absenteeism high; now the number of pupils achieving five or more GCSE/GNVQs at A-C grade has risen from 15% in 1999 to over 41%. Of course, this started happening before School Works and dRMM got involved. Kingsdale's success is the result of pupils, parents, teachers and governors taking their audit of the school and rethinking how they might work together. The architectural programme is an extension of this process.

Morrison says that pupils are becoming aware of what makes good architecture and why it is important. And, he says, "they are now able to discuss the building work on a much higher plane than before. For example, in a discussion about the new classrooms the children didn't talk just about the colour of the walls, but of how the temperature and humidity are controlled at different times of the day and about noise reduction techniques."

As for the impact of design on academic achievement, Morrison says: "So far the impact on targets such as raising pupils' self-esteem has been greater and more obvious than many predicted."

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27/6/04/04 Last Updated 27/6/04