Why do government school buildings look the way they do?

A Mariyam Alavi
Burhaan Kinu, Sanchit Khanna

The C Block government school in Sangam Vihar, where HT's Class of 2018 project is based, was built in the 1992 but the building's long open verandas and arched corridors hark back to an architectural language that is over a hundred years old.

Across Delhi, the 1009 government schools correspond to three distinct periods of construction – pre-Independence, the post-Independence to the late 1990s, and the most recent constructions in the past three years. These buildings reflect not just the design philosophies in vogue at the time, but also prevailing pedagogic practices.

In essence, most school buildings are designed to control children by arranging classrooms along corridors which lets teachers impose discipline and order by patrolling the passages. Philosopher Michel Foucault had noted that this particular spatial pattern is common to most buildings that seek to regulate their inhabitants. "Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?" Focault wrote in his best known work, Discipline and Punish.

"In the 1800s buildings had a Victorian sense of grandeur. By the 1900s, we had what is called the Indo-Saracenic style, which was a fusion of the Victorian with Indian and Indo-Islamic architecture styles," said KT Ravindran, architect and Dean Emeritus at the RICS School of Built Environment at Amity University. "This was evident in the schools that were built at the time as well," he added.

In the years after Independence, Delhi did not have a state assembly — which meant that the department of education struggled to find adequate land and resources. As a result, the schools built in that period were semi-permanent structures with cement walls and roof made of Agra-stone slabs held up by girders.

"But they were still building these square boxes, assembling classrooms like the bogeys of a train," said Kabir Vajpeyi, an architect who has worked on school buildings. "It came from an idea that all children were identical, but not necessarily equal, and schools were supposed to 'mass-produce' such identical children."

The late 1990s, Vajpeyi said, ushered a fundamental shift in pedagogy with an increased focus on the individuality of each child. Unfortunately, the architecture of classrooms remained the same.

"We necessarily did not break any boxes," said Vajpeyi. "The main reason behind this was that people designing curriculum and those designing spaces don't really talk to each other."

 

 

Any classroom can be oriented in two simple ways: either with a fixed set of children who are visited by different teachers for each lesson, or the room has a given purpose – like a laboratory – and is visited by a revolving set of students. Such decisions are ideally taken by experts called education planners.

When assigning a room a particular purpose, and providing it with learning aids like scientific instruments or art supplies, architects should speak with these planners to find out how often such a room would be used.

Decisions such as these, architect Martand Khosla said, influence how efficiently an institution uses a given space.

"The idea of a home class works well with younger children as it gives them a sense of belonging," Khosla said, "But in higher classes children might find it more engaging to move between different spaces."

Ranjit Mitra, the former director of the School of Planning and Architecture, said the standard sarkari building is largely a consequence of the ways of governments and bureaucracies.

"In those days (post 1950s), the agencies, like the Public Works Department, had their own in-house architects designing the buildings. There weren't any private architects involved. So they were standardized... Between the 50s-70s and 80s-90s, not much changed, except for some finishing and the kind of materials used," said Mitra.

The architecture of schools can fundamentally influence how well children learn at school, studies have found.

Lights, Ventilation, Education

Layout apart, school buildings must also consider fundamental questions of light, ventilation and class size.

A 1999 study, of 2000 US classrooms by the Heschong Mahone group, cited in Mark Schneider's 2002 paper titled "Do school facilities affect academic outcomes?," found that students in classrooms with the most daylight progressed 20 per cent faster in one year on math tests and 26 per cent faster on reading tests than those students who learned in environments that received the least amount of natural light.

Poorly ventilated classrooms, the same paper said, were found to result in increased rates of student absenteeism.

This is of particular importance in schools like the one in Sangam Vihar where up to 90 students squeeze into classrooms designed for 40 children.

"We work with whatever building we get. If the school has more facilities, like better water and uninterrupted electricity, and is clean, students would not try to run away or skip classes," said Lakhan Singh, the school's vice principal. "They will feel more comfortable in the school and will want to stay as well."

Laxmi Bai Nagar Co-ed Senior Secondary School

The school in Laxmi Bai Nagar in south Delhi, has two distinct buildings: A single-storied set of classrooms from when the school was established in 1900 and a two-storied building built in the early 1970s, according to the staff at the school.

The colonial influences are visible in the older building which houses students from Class 9 to 12. The single-storey construction has long open verandas, ringed with square columns that curve around a small courtyard where teachers and students mingle during breaks.

The later building, meant for students from Class 6 to Class 8, is a rectangular three-storey construction with long, dark corridors with well-lit classrooms on either side. The building uses some of techniques prescribed by "Building as a Learning Aid" (BaLA) — a concept, by architect Kabir Vajpeyi, in which the building infrastructure is used to help children grasp basic concepts of science, mathematics and language. For instance, each stair in the staircase is numbered to help children count, while the walls are covered in educational murals.

"I was happy they were thinking about BaLA, but teachers were not really trained on how to use it," Vajpeyi said. "So it became the misappropriation of an idea, and they reduced it to just painting walls with formulas and such."

Indian Agricultural Research Institute Campus, Pusa Road

The school building at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute Campus in Pusa Road is one of 54 model schools developed by the current Delhi government. These schools are meant to have state-of-the-art infrastructure.

The new building is a granite-clad multi-storied building, with an air conditioned multi-purpose hall, and smart classrooms. Some model schools also have swimming pools and gymnasiums on campus.

Atishi Marlena, the advisor to education minister Manish Sisodia, said that when the Aam Aadmi Party came to power in 2014, they felt that the condition of the school has an impact on the students, and teachers.

"When the building looks shabby, and under maintained, the students are made to feel like second class citizens. This affects their self image, and also performance. It's our government's aspiration that our schools be the first choice of parents, not the final resort," Marlena said.

Students agree.

"I feel even the education is better now. Earlier, we did not have benches, or enough rooms. Different classes had to share rooms. The roof leaked. We could not study. I used to feel embarrassed telling people that this is my school. Now look at it!," said Anita Kumari, a class 12 student at the school.

Ravindran, the architect, said the new buildings evoke more corporate and aspirational design.

"They want to look more like the private schools," Ravindran said, "And it is not just about the look; the push for English medium, swimming pools, uniforms, air conditioned rooms, they are all a part of the aspiration to connect to the corporate world."