North East Campus, Dundee / by Craig Heap

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Conceived in 2015, and opened to pupils in August 2018, North East Campus in the Whitfield area of Dundee rethinks primary school provision in the area, offering an innovative and dynamic learning environment with pupil’s wellbeing at its core. The brief, to combine three existing primary schools, and two existing nursery schools within a new, state-of-the-art facility, required an architectural approach that addressed a number of key issues;

How can a building of over 7,000m2 remain approachable, legible and navigable for pupils as young as 2 years old?

How can the architectural approach assist and encourage positive transitions between year group stages?

How can this multi faith facility maintain open plan, collaborative learning at its heart, whilst recognising the need for distinct school identity?

Recognising the differing needs and vulnerabilities of children from pre-school through to graduation to secondary school, the design for NE Campus seeks to respond by addressing the aspects that relate to a pupils ‘day at the school’. On approach, this three storey building may seem dominant on the hillscape to the North of the City, however at ground level, pupils are presented with considered and appropriate entrance points. Nursery pupils are guided through a landscaped pre-school garden, to a single storey canopied entrance, with playful articulation and open aspects to the playroom and nurture spaces beyond. Infant pupils are catered for through individual classroom entrances at ground level, providing each teaching space with a ‘front lawn’ on approach, and mitigating any fear of crowding issues or intimidation in vertical circulation stairwells. For senior pupils, the grandeur of the school’s principal entrances reinforce their maturity within the establishment and allow them to embrace their pending graduation to secondary school by accessing the school and its upper floor on the diagonal axis that dissects the building floor plan.

Internally, the building fosters transition by carefully aligning and considering relationships between year groups, offering the opportunity for social interaction in suitably scaled environments. Whilst the building’s central atrium reaches a height of 16 metres, the space is crafted to create intimate courtyard settings, intersected by a dynamic learning ‘bridge’. The smallest of the courtyards links the Early Years Centre with the infant classrooms, providing a library, group work and craft area for pupils to meet and explore. Glass screens link both the playroom and infant classrooms with this open plan area, allowing pre-school children the opportunity to identify and acclimatise to their next step, whilst infant pupils understand the journey they have taken in their first step through academia.

Classroom spaces and their connection to circulation and flexible learning remains intimate and protected at infant level, with limited areas of ‘double height’ volume, and the ability to shelter from the larger atrium and social spaces within the school. This arrangement provides the character of a newly formed infant school, where every facility is locally available, and the year groups can customise their environment and setting for learning. For junior and senior pupils however, the school opens up to form a dynamic and uplifting educational agora, with cascading floors addressing the central atrium, learning bridge and terraced group work areas. Pupils will graduate upwards through the building as they progress through year groups, easily mapping their journey and allowing the ability to reflect on achievements. The school eschews the traditional dining and assembly hall, and instead offers a tiered performance and social area, that allows for social gathering and dining, whilst forming the optimum space for science practical teaching, setting for art classes, and launch point for cross curricular engagement.

The further consideration of the NE Campus design is the integration of both non-denominational and Roman Catholic school communities under a single roof, offering the ability to maintain school identity whilst embracing the opportunity for wider school collaboration. As demonstrated at the recent opening event at the campus, the design and layout of the building is encouraging continual dialogue between the associated senior management and teaching staff of each school, embracing every opportunity for learning as a collective, and celebrating not only the achievements of each individual school, but the outlook of the joint campus as a whole.     

North East campus is a truly ambitious project, which offers the optimum environment for pupils and for delivery of the curriculum. Moreover, this project clearly demonstrates that careful design at pupil level, can create the most intimate of learning spaces, within one of the largest primary schools in Scotland.