Thursday03 September 2015

Steve Bolingbroke: teaching Swedish methods for schools

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Kunskapsskolan is bringing Swedish school expertise to the UK. Steve Bolingbroke is the man architects need to get to know.

When Steve Bolingbroke, then working for IT supplier RM, went to an education conference in 2004 it was a life-changing experience. As a result, the businessman is running an organisation that is introducing a Swedish model of education into the UK. Commissioned under the last government to design five academies, his organisation is the darling of the Conservatives and may well offer a way of improving our schools even if, despite all promises, budgets are cut drastically.

The presentation was about Kunskapsskolan, a name that means “the knowledge school”. This organisation is building and running some of the “free schools” by which David Cameron is so impressed. But in 2004 it was an almost unknown concept in this country. There was, however, the start of a movement towards “personalised learning”. Bolingbroke thought it sounded as if Kunskapsskolan had an approach that worked for this, so went to visit some of its schools in Sweden to find out.

“I had an ’aha’ moment when I realised that all our perceptions about how schools may be run are wrong,” says Bolingbroke.

As a result, he became a proselytiser for the system, describing himself as “an unpaid tour guide”, taking more than 100 people to visit the schools. Bolingbroke’s interest paid off last year when the company asked him to run its new international office in London. Now, as managing director, he is responsible for introducing this Swedish model of education into the UK.

Kunskapsskolan has made a commitment to build and run five academies in England, of which two will be in the London Borough of Richmond, and one is likely to be in Suffolk (it has been selected as preferred bidder). These five have to operate on a not-for-profit basis, and after that Kunskapsskolan hopes to run here as it does in Sweden, as a profit-making company, setting up and running schools for a fixed annual fee per pupil, paid by the state.

One fact many people know about the Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden is that many of them are adapted from other buildings, ranging from offices and factories to an astronomical observatory. Part of this was of necessity – when the company was first set up in the 1990s, it did not have the funds to build from scratch. But it also reflects the fact that the very different educational philosophy results in buildings that look very different.

The UK buildings will be new, but they will not resemble schools as we know them. “We need a much more varied space, with a mix of rooms,” Bolingbroke explains. Student-centred learning requires everything from small spaces for individual study, to more conventionally sized teaching rooms and large spaces for activities such as drama. As a result, says Bolingbroke, the schools “look a lot more like ’normal’ buildings. They can look like universities or further education colleges, and can also look a lot like modern open-plan offices.”

Neither is the organisation interested in grand gestures. “A lot of academies are quite iconic,” says Bolingbroke, “but we are not that interested in how the outsides of our buildings look.” Nor does he favour the huge atria that many academies like as a centrepiece. “You just wonder why you are heating all that air,” he says. The Swedish schools are deliberately small, with no more than 500 pupils, and the UK versions are being divided into almost self-sufficient “colleges” to bring them down to that size.

But this does not mean he is not interested in high-quality design. In Sweden, the schools are built by Kunskapsskolan’s in-house architect Kenneth Gärdestad. But in the UK, the two bidders are working with Walters & Cohen, an interesting architect with a good track record in schools, and Astudio Architecture, a relatively new practice that was nominated for the Young Architect of the Year Award in 2009, and is designing a number of education buildings. Richmond Council will select its preferred bidder at the end of August.

It is part of the ethos of academies that they should have new buildings and anyway, the one building type that Kunskapsskolan would not find adaptable to its use would be an old-style “chalk and talk” school building. But as budgets tighten, Kunskapsskolan’s Swedish experience of adapting existing buildings to school use may appeal. Typically, it manages to transform a building into a school for about £1 million. There are differences here, since sport in Sweden takes place away from schools, and there is far less active study, such as drama or experimental science. But there could still be great savings.

Bolingbroke originally trained as a teacher, but moved immediately into IT. His only links with education were through selling IT into schools and as a school governor. But now through Kunskapsskolan, he is set to have far more influence on education than if he had followed that original career path.


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