Sylvia McNamara on the architects’ role in Birmingham’s schools’ transformation
BD Magazine - Public Sector - July 2009 | By Ruth Slavid
Sylvia McNamara is leading the country’s largest BSF programme with the aim of transforming Birmingham’s schools and using architects for creative problem solving

If you want to impress Sylvia McNamara, director of transforming education at Birmingham City Council, don’t put a lightwell in your design. Simon Foxell, senior client design adviser for the programme, says: “She has certain things she doesn’t like to see in designs. She doesn’t like lightwells, because they create a circulation corridor around them which is useless.”

McNamara is an educationist running the country’s largest programme under Building Schools for the Future. Both her background — such clients more usually come from property roles — and the size of the programme, are evidence of Birmingham’s determination to develop its notion of the way schools should operate: in partnership with the community, with each other, with students and with the council.

As part of this, it organised its schools into six regional networks. When it was suggested that schools in one area should be put into phase one of BSF McNamara “thought it would undermine the partnership process”. There was also “a very strong push” from the Department of Children, Schools and Families to embrace the academies programme. “We wanted to ensure that the academies worked in a group of schools across the area networks.”

Birmingham took Partnerships for Schools’ criteria for assessing need and ranked its schools, fitting them into the various phases of BSF. The result is a coherent £1.2 billion programme for 89 secondary schools. With a project this size, you have to get it right. “My asset management team had produced a set of lessons learnt from previous PFI projects,” says McNamara. “This was to be an education project, to be led by educationists. That’s why I took it on, to ensure that it had education at the heart.”

Until joining the council 10 years ago, McNamara’s career was in teaching. Starting with Voluntary Service Overseas in Tanzania, she had specialised in education for children with special needs in schools and universities and co-authored a number books looking at supporting all children in ways that help them learn.

She wanted to bring this approach to the BSF work, plus a flexibility to allow for future changes in educational delivery. Through the project’s CABE enabler, Jonathan Ellis-Miller, she appointed Foxell and Matthew Springett as design advisers. Foxell soon took on the lead role. “Simon and I worked together on the ‘inside-out’ approach. We focused on the educational needs of the future, we defined flexibility, and came up with the notion of clusters,” she says.

When the three shortlisted consortia were bidding, McNamara and Foxell challenged the architects’ designs, which often started from an external shape and then tried to fit in the clusters. “It took ages, because it was alien to their way of working,” she says.

At the start of this year, Birmingham appointed its preferred bidder, Catalyst, led by Lend Lease Catalyst, with the contracting arm Bovis Lend Lease, with Vita Lend Lease as facilities manager and Redstone the IT partner. Three sample schemes were designed by Alsop Architects with the Birmingham branch of Archial, by Associated Architects and Cottrell & Vermeulen. More schools are being designed by Marks Barfield Architects, dRMM, Haworth Tompkins, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, FAT, Glenn Howells Architects, Penoyre & Prasad and Bournville Architects. Nicholas Hare Architects, Alsop and Edward Cullinan Architects are designing the first three academies.

In parallel with the first projects, Birmingham is developing a toolkit for everything ranging from the layout of toilets to the gas taps in the science labs. “What we want to help the heads do is to focus on the curriculum,” she says. And she does not think this approach diminishes the role of the architects. “We want the architects to use their creativity for the things that need creative problem solving.”

If sorting out Birmingham’s secondary schools seems daunting, for McNamara it is scarcely enough. She expects to be there for another four years, but: “What I really want to do is go into this kind of high-level strategic work somewhere like South Africa — a developing country.”

McNamara's Top 5 Projects

Reference Project
Theoretical project designs 2008
When the consortia were working up their bids they were asked to carry out some visionary work to see how their designs might evolve as schools developed. Catalyst commissioned detailed work, taking the Broadway site as its starting point, looking at how much closer ties with the community might be, and additional facilities a school might have to offer. It commissioned illustrations of this concept from a team comprising Avanti Architects, Derek Latham and US practice Fielding Nair.

Holte Mayfield Lozells, Aston
Due to open 2010
Alsop Architects designed this triple school with the Birmingham office of Archial as one of the three sample schools. Holte secondary school shared the site with Lozells primary school and under BSF the pupils of Mayfield special school will also come to the site. Pathfinder money is helping to pay for the redevelopment of the primary school, which is outside BSF. The aim is to break down barriers between the primary and secondary school and root all facilities more firmly in the community.

Stockland Green Technology College, Erdington
Due to open 2010
Birmingham-based Associated Architects designed this school, originally working with FAT. As the council acquired extra land the development is not hampered by the current difficult shape of the site. The architect has arranged the school along a central spine, with horseshoe-shaped learning clusters arranged along it. From these it is possible to break out into social learning spaces. The size of the clusters can be adjusted according to need so small spaces can open up into larger ones.

Broadway School, Perry Barr
Due to open 2010
Cottrell & Vermeulen is bringing together this school from a split to a single site, refurbishing a series of late 20th century buildings, with a minimal amount of new build. A new central space, partly double-height and partly triple-height, known as the “knowledge exchange”, will enhance communication and remove the need for much of the circulation space. Students at the school are producing patterns in a workshop which will be printed on the external cladding.

George Dixon International School, Edgbaston
Due for completion spring 2012
Birmingham has a great legacy of Victorian buildings, funded by local philanthropists and civic dignitaries. Grade II listed George Dixon school is a fine example, although now run down behind its imposing facade. Glenn Howells Architects is designing the refurbishment. Sylvia McNamara is excited by the fact that the way the school was originally designed, with separate entrances and dedicated areas for boys, girls and infants, makes it suitable for adaptation to the new cluster model.