A Primary Experience - NSW Chapter visits

Published: Sunday 11 August 2013

On 30th July over 75 registrants, members and non members, visited two recently completed primary school developments: Barker College’s Junior School in Hornsby and Wenona’s Woodstock Infants School in North Sydney.

Barker College Junior School
Over the past four years Barker College’s Year 3 to 6 Junior School buildings have been substantially upgraded following a three stage master plan comprising a multi-purpose hall, new Learning Cohorts, and an expanded Enrichment Centre. Headmaster of Barker College Dr Roderic Kefford, and Head of Junior School Neil Harrison, together with Peter Doddrell and Warren Marsh from architects PMDL presented the background to the project and led groups around the facilities.

The College bases its pedagogical approach on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences delivering a Teaching for Understanding curriculum. The College aims to personalise curriculum delivery to suit individual students’ intelligences (for example bodily-kinaesthetic, musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical and so forth) with assessment based on Performances of Understanding.

The Junior School’s old existing classroom building followed a narrow single loaded corridor plan providing access to enclosed cellular classrooms – a rigid opaque environment unsuited to the integration of specialist activities, communication between home-base and specialist teachers, collaborative curriculum planning and observation of student progress. Following a thorough consultation process, PMDL have radically remodelled and extended the existing buildings to deliver open, transparent and connected learning environments better suited to the College’s pedagogy.

Following the completion of a new multi-purpose Hall in the first master plan stage, the architects went on to substantially widen the southern half of the classroom wing to form a cluster of visually transparent Learning Cohort areas for years 3 to 6. Each Learning Cohort area is comprised of four home-bases, paired across operable walls with shared small group rooms. All the bases open onto open plan activity areas at the heart of the plan adjoining outdoor decks.

The final stage of the project, the new Enrichment Centre, has just opened at the opposite end of the plan. It comprises Library and IT Resources, together with rooms for Visual Arts, Design Technology, Science, and Learning Support. These areas are key facilities in the delivery of the College’s Multiple Intelligences approach and the new wing successfully integrates them in a relatively transparent environment around a double height central space and feature staircase. It is perhaps a pity that the constraints of staged construction across the existing building has resulted in the separation of the Enrichment Centre from the Learning Cohorts by what is left of the existing corridor.

Use of outdoor areas have been greatly improved. Use of existing informal lawns was previously restricted and these have been replaced by a stepped courtyard which forms a fantastic central gathering and outdoor learning space. Good indoor-outdoor connections have been created at the centre of each Learning Cohort area, as well as at pottery and art rooms, with a new bridge improving access to outdoor sport areas. The opportunity to provide direct outdoor access from other ground floor spaces was however not pursued.

The Learning Cohorts have now been in use for six months and are already catalysing innovation in pedagogy. During our visit a significant number of operable walls and concertina glazing were closed, suggesting some teaching continues to follow lesson plans developed for the old cellular facilities, however other teachers have embraced the opportunities the facilities present. The new learning spaces are intended to act as a catalyst for curriculum innovation and collaborative curriculum planning is underway, for example to integrate specialist staff into classroom activities and make use of iPads in teaching and learning.

Wenona Woodstock Infant School
Following a hop across North Sydney we regrouped at Wenona’s Woodstock Infants School, whose new facilities opened in 2011. Principal Dr Briony Scott and architect Ross Gardner of Gardner Wetherill + Associates introduced the project and led tours with Head of Junior School Sharryn Naylor, Kindergarten to Year 2 Coordinator Julie Collier and Business Manager Andrew Leake.

In contrast to Barker College, Wenona is located on a tight urban site. Architects Gardner Wetherill + Associates have successfully unlocked site capacity by relocating the Infants School to dedicated “school within a school” accommodation adjoining the Senior School. Facilities are arranged alongside an indoor Piazza which draws on Reggio Emilia principles providing the opportunity for children to explore and discover, and for the school community to gather and interact.

The site presented considerable challenges – not least the need to conserve three heritage listed cottages which occupy almost the entire street frontage. The cottages have been substantially re-structured to create rooms suitable for Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 2 home-bases. Heritage features such as fire places and bay windows have been retained providing a memory of the buildings’ domestic history. The period features contrast with tall fully glazed partitions which provide a sense of transparency and permeability.

Structures at the rear of the cottages have been replaced by a contemporary two storey wing expressing the Infant School’s new identity. This houses reception, after school care facilities and the large central indoor Piazza. While the Piazza ceiling level was constrained by height restrictions, floor to ceiling glazing and high level clerestories result in a bright, open and welcoming naturally ventilated space.

One of the most successful aspects of the project has been the use of landscape to make intensive use of Wenona’s urban site. The old night cart access lane at the rear of the cottages now forms a new entrance leading to a timber arched bridge over a small pond and new play areas. Timber and concrete steps form mini-amphitheatres defining outdoor classrooms overlooked by a terrace adjoining the indoor Piazza. A roof-top play area has however proved a mixed blessing, being well used by senior boarders, but less so by the Infant School due to the lack of roof level toilets and the challenge of escorting very young children to roof level.

Both Barker College and Wenona have developed new facilities which can act as catalysts for changes in teaching and learning. Just as Barker College is now focussed on innovative curriculum planning, Wenona has taken time to learn how to make best use of its new building. Initially only limited use was made of the Piazza. Despite generous glazing, visual links and circulation routes between the home-bases and Piazza are obstructed by lockers and this may have discouraged staff from programming parallel activities. Use of the Piazza has however improved greatly over time and it is now filled with imaginative learning resources, creative sensory environments and installations to encourage the children to explore, discover, and build relationships outside their home-bases.

Noam Raz
CEFPI Member