Last Friday saw me speaking at ‘A Space for Learning’, Irish Architecture Foundation’s first symposium on architecture education in schools. The day had the specific aim to create a manifesto to present to the Irish government in support of IAF’s ‘Architects-in-Schools’ programme. In this day of debate and sharing of experience came a question, of which the wider implications are pertinent to all of us involved in cultural education in the UK, of ‘what is the value of including architecture in education curriculum policy?’
From my experience, this is a moot point. Architecture is the original holistic, cross-curricular subject and to have it embedded in the curriculum would mean that built environment education (BEE) is recognised and valued. And yes, inclusion would be of great benefit to my colleagues at architecture centres, creating an automatic demand for their BEE delivery and support in schools across the country. That all sounds good, let’s get lobbying!
However, Dutch colleagues, where architecture is a compulsory school topic, report that, as BEE is perceived by teachers as a challenge, it is given a token lesson once in the year so that it can be ‘ticked off the list’. It is narrowed into design or geography lessons and BEE professionals aren’t readily engaged with to unlock its learning potential in these or other subjects. BEE as a result is left impoverished, as is pupils learning.
Architecture has never been in the UK curriculum. It has been a constant challenge for our sector to advocate for BEE’s value and impact across the curriculum, from languages through to ICT, religious studies and citizenship for example as well as the more expected subjects of art, design, maths and geography. Programmes like BSF were instrumental in unlocking the teaching and learning potential of the built environment and using the school building as a teaching tool (and don’t believe the negative hype on BSF, there are some great new schools out there and few rich architects because of them) but with its demise and the emerging focus of new education policy seemingly devaluing cultural and creative learning, its extremely unlikely to be in the future.
But as a sector, we have used our exclusion to our advantage. With no policy to prescribe how, where or when BEE is taught, we have been creative in our approach and developed programmes that cut across age, subject and site; collaborate with professionals and community alike; appeal to all learning styles; foster a creative, inquisitive, confident and pragmatic learner; and empower teachers with a new learning tool to unlock fresh approaches to their lessons.
As we move forward into a new educational system with a narrowed curriculum and an ideology that is at odds with the approach of cultural learning, as a sector we need to be questioning how we create a case for what we do, deliver this within a straightened curriculum and prove our value to others. Our experience with BEE could, I hope, prove a useful case in point of how to use adversity to advantage and ensure that the ground we have made in the last years is not lost forever.
Cara Courage is an Arts Consultant, Head of Learning at Architecture Centre Network, and Transition Co-coordinator for the Creative Campus Initiative