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Feature article



In 1933 an architectural competition was held to replace the Melbourne Girls’ High School. It was to be built with funds donated by the chocolate manufacturer Sir MacPherson Robertson as a gift to the State of Victoria, celebrating the Centenary of its foundation.

The submission from the young firm of Seabrook and Fildes was announced as the winning design for Mac Roberston Girls’ High School. Robin Boyd would later describe ‘MacRob’ as the building that led ‘the revolution of modern architecture’ in Victoria.1

The procurement of schools today has shifted significantly – less competitions, new funding models, a greater emphasis on risk management and the appointment of project managers (following the Building Education Revolution), an increased reliance on relocatables and an increasing appetite for Public Private Partnerships (PPP). What remains however is the need for leadership in design and a society that values education.

The Office of Victorian Government Architect advocates that an enduring legacy of any government is the quality of school buildings that it delivers as well as the education that it delivers. Victoria’s future reputation for good design and the quality of its built environment relies upon recognising the value that design adds over the lifetime of a school. The OVGA’s role in this context is to offer a whole-of-government approach, to provide leadership through an advocacy and advisory role and support procurement processes in the newly established Department of Education and Training.

School by Seabrook & Fildes. Photograph: Peter Bennetts

Corona Avenue School 1935, California, USA by Richard Neutra, Photograph: Julius

Horsham Special School, Landscape Architect: Mary Jeavons. Photograph: SilviGlattaue

The OVGA champions design quality through:


• The launch of the OVGA’s new publication ‘Good Design and Education’, the sixth in a series helping to raise awareness of good design

• Advocating the reintroduction of a fee schedule for procurement of architectural services in consultation with industry stakeholders

• Advocating for increased funding of school masterplans and recognising their importance as strategic documents

• Embedding design quality in every stage of a project’s lifecycle – from inception to realisation

• Advocating the establishment of a design quality team for the New Schools PPP Project to champion and monitor good design through the procurement process

• Collaboration with peak educational organisations including the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI)

• Chairing and jury participation in the state government’s School Design Awards 2006-2010 and the CEFPI State Awards.


• Design advice on functional and consultant briefs, evaluation criteria and expressions of interest

• Advisory role in the procurement for the 2014 New Schools PPP with a design quality team

• Advisory role in 2008 with the Partnerships Victoria in Schools Project on the evaluation panel and the Design and Technical Sub-Panel

• Input on the department’s Building Quality Standards Handbook

• Design review of school projects through the Victorian Design Review Panel

• Design workshops for schools in growth areas to help identify risks and opportunities for the local community.

Contemporary approaches to pedagogy demand architecture that can provide spaces that will support both the students and teachers to learn with an emphasis on personalisation, active investigation and inquiry, collaboration and growth towards self-management and self-direction. Such architecture offers an inventory of approaches, from the traditional instructive mode of direct instruction to facilitation of individual inquiry and problem solving. It will offer adaptable spaces that can transition in size from the individual to year cohorts, which support a variety of learning and teaching modes.

Prioritising spatial literacy is the conscious decision by architects to see the value in collaborating with pedagogy specialists and more recently, neuroscientists. The need for architects to collaborate effectively is further demonstrated through the leading research of John Hattie. Hattie posed the question “What works best in education?” demonstrating that academic achievement is due to the intrinsic motivation of students themselves with 50% of the variance and with 30% of the variance attributed to the teacher.2

It follows that the architectural design intent must be to support the students and teachers alike. Unless architects collaborate through inclusive design processes, where architects learn more about pedagogy and teachers more about design, only then can a common ‘spatial literacy’ emerge that will inform the design of future learning environments.3 A quality learning environment, according to pedagogy specialist Julia Atkin, ‘has to have three aspects to it: physical, social and virtual.’4  The physical includes not just the buildings themselves but also the outdoor environment.

Innovation in school design presented a watershed in 1935, when Richard Neutra’s Corona School in California dispelled the notion that learning only occurs indoors. Contemporaneous with Mac Rob, Neutra’s design approach included large full height glazed sliding doors that opened onto outdoor learning spaces with seats, storage, access to water and established trees for shading, providing an integrated extension of the indoor learning environment.

Progressive schools draw on constructivist education theories, which place the child at the centre of learning and emphasise the significance of the environment. Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education, stated that ‘the environment is the Third Teacher’.5Play, as pedagogy is just as important in primary school, as it is in early childhood. Play, in the outdoor learning environment influences the child’s social, physical and cognitive skills. Some of the key considerations in outdoor learning areas should involve loose materials in supporting creative play and exceeding the minimum requirements per child for external play areas. The recent example of the sensory garden at Horsham Special School allows for multiple experiences in a small space.  It has an acknowledged calming effect on students, achieved by utilising a range of surfaces, tactile surfaces, ‘pressure poles’, and exploratory pathways.

Schools are one of the few types of public buildings still being built in new communities. They help set the urban structure, create legibility and when designed well, offer the opportunity to share facilities. As a society, how well we resource our schools, is primarily a reflection of how we value children and the importance we chose to place on education. A noteworthy international precedent is the Italian City of Reggio Emilia, where more than 14% of the city budget goes to support 30 municipal infant-toddler centres and preschools.6 In 2012 Australian government and private expenditure on schools as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product amounted to 3.1% of GDP. Of the 29 OECD countries for which data was available, only seven countries ranked lower than Australia on this measure.7

As education professionals experience a cultural shift in approaches to teaching and learning, the new school model should evolve alongside it. When architects not only lead – educāre in this process – but also collaborate, then the rhetoric surrounding pedagogy can be realised and spatial literacy embedded in the architecture of new schools.


1Robin Boyd, ‘Victorian Modern: One Hundred and Eleven Years of Modern Architecture in Victoria’, Victorian Architectural Students Society, Melbourne, 1947,p.28.

2John Hattie, ‘Teachers Make a Difference, What is the research evidence?’, Australian Council for Educational research October 2003.

3Kenn Fisher, ‘Pedagogy and architecture’, Architecture Australia, September 2007 (Vol 96 No 5).

4Julia Atkin, ‘What makes a learning environment innovative?’, Innovative Learning Environments Expo, p. 17 October 2010.

5Carla Rinaldi, ‘Re-imagining Childhood – The inspiration of Reggio Emilia education principles in South Australia’, p. 28 June 2013.

6 Carolyn Edwards, LellaGandini, George Forman, ‘The Hundred Languages of Children – The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation’. p. 5. 2012.

7OECD, ‘Education at a Glance 2012 – OECD indicators’, OECD Publishing, 2012.