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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November 2003, 11:56 GMT
Lessons of a well-designed school
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online

An innovative new primary school on a deprived estate has claimed an architecture award and given a sense of pride to pupils and the community. But can great buildings cure social ills?

The story of Jubilee school

Jubilee Primary School shines like a beacon of colour amid the monochrome high-rise tower blocks of Brixton, south London.

The school's sense of space and use of colour immediately catch the eye. But there are more subtle joys in the classroom design and the filtering of light and air.

The judges of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) 2003 award were sufficiently impressed to commend its "design excellence".

Kevin Donnelly, the head of property at Lambeth Education Authority, told BBC News Online that there seems to be a direct link between the teaching environment and attainment.

"Pupils today are used to going to shopping centres and multiplexes, and they understand quality design. If you're teaching children in miserable accommodation, you're telling them you don't value the experience they are going through."

Jubilee School
The school brightens up the estate
Although it is too early to tell if the children's academic performance has lifted - the school has only been open a year - Mr Donnelly says it acts as a signal of hope to a community blighted by unemployment and deprivation.

"It makes a statement about the community's commitment to regeneration."

Councillor Jackie Meldrum says the school is increasingly being used as a community centre, shared by residents on the estate as well as pupils and their families. It also brightens up an area with little green space.

"Looking down from the tower blocks, it's a fabulous view and looks like a field because of the grassy flat roof," she says.

Head teacher Jan Horne says the innovative design has given the children a sense of pride and cultivated their artistic awareness. "We've had very little graffiti, so the children have a sense of looking after their immediate environment."

But the biggest impact on the children has been the opportunity to understand diversity, she says. Not only does the school serve a community where more than 30 languages are spoken, it has a special needs unit which attracts children from across south London.

Expensive failure

Elsewhere in the UK, artists and architects have been credited with helping to regenerate city centres such as Newcastle and Glasgow - after years as an neglected backwater, the Scottish city has become the third most popular tourist destination in the UK.

But outside city centres, social problems are less easily addressed. A pioneering project in Glasgow has tried to revive five neighbourhoods through schemes devised by teaming residents with urban designers and artists.

The project, called Five Spaces, was launched four years ago and funded by 1.8m in grants from the Arts Council, Scottish Homes and the European Union.

But a conference last week which considered the results concluded it had had little success, with some of the schemes blighted by vandalism. Pauline Gallagher, who headed the project, admitted there that the approach had been "naive".

"This doesn't mean we turn our back on public art, but it's a more subtle matter than we thought," she told BBC News Online. "Visual identity is very important. High quality design is important for us in environments becoming more homogenised by the year."

Toilet Gallery
Toilet Gallery: Flush with success
Rob Cowan, of the Urban Design Group, says the impact of public art can be overstated. The best examples are when the local community has had a hand in briefing the artists.

"Sometimes people are annoyed to have a work of art plonked in their neighbourhood if they don't like it or understand it. But if it's something they feel they have identified with or reflects their local aspiration, it can have a very positive effect."

Recent efforts to revamp the vandalised and abandoned Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth have failed, he says, because other factors - such as its location, marooned away from much passing trade - were overlooked in the planners' preoccupation with design.

Perhaps urban artists searching for inspiration could learn from Paul Stafford, who has converted a derelict public toilet in south-west London into an art gallery.

In its former incarnation, the Toilet Gallery was an eyesore, used only as a shooting gallery for heroin users. After consulting with representatives from the local - largely well-heeled - community, he transformed it into a showcase for young artists which attracts 350 visitors a week.

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