John McAslan + Partners' (JMP) new buildings at the RSA Academy in Tipton, West Midlands, have been opened by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, president of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The £25 million scheme is the first to be designed around the RSA's innovative Opening Minds curriculum.
The RSA Academy was first opened in September 2008, after a light refurbishment of the existing 1950s Willingsworth High School and the adoption of the Opening Minds curriculum.
The last two years have seen the second phase of the project, with three new buildings taking shape in a physical expression of the RSA's new educational approach. Assisted by a £2 million RSA sponsorship, the Academy now facilitates the teaching of 1,100 pupils, including a sixth form centre.
JMP's design consists of three buildings, reflecting the separate teaching "schools" of the Opening Minds curriculum - broadly, humanities, science and languages - as well as the three house groups which encourage cross-year-group interaction. The buildings, constructed by Wilmott Dixon, are connected by a glazed central spine and separated by landscaped courtyards.
JMP's design has created generous space standards throughout the scheme. An external circulation system operates via wide balconies, which surround each building. Internal corridors were avoided to preserve space for large, ICT and Wi-Fi-enabled classrooms, measuring 70m2 rather than the state recommended 56m2. These include individual wet areas that allow a variety of project-based teaching to take place.
The Opening Minds innovative teaching approach prescribes three-hour learning sessions in cross-curricular modules, with varied teaching methods adopted. To facilitate this approach, folding acoustic walls between classrooms allow neighbouring rooms to open into each other, creating flexible and adaptable teaching environments for up to 120 pupils.
Teaching can also take place on the roof terraces or in the courtyards, where a variety of outdoor classrooms are provided, as well as areas for the cultivation of plants and vegetables to assist with science and food education, including a market garden that provides fresh produce for the school canteen.
The RSA Academy is a flagship project of the RSA and has become the headquarters for Opening Minds, which places emphasis on the real world skills students need to thrive in later life, including Citizenship, Relating to People, Managing Situations and Managing Information. The Academy continues to lead the way in developing the RSA's Opening Minds framework and is crucial in aiding the programme to deliver the content of the national curriculum in a creative and flexible way.
The building looks out onto a cricket pitch conceived as a ‘village green’, which engages the school with the local community. The building frontage is wrapped in a planted screen which, overtime, will cover the facades in climbers and plants, further rooting the school within the surrounding landscape.
By providing young people with opportunities for both educational achievement and instilling in them greater social awareness and a sense of responsibility towards their local area, the RSA Academy aims to play a major role in the economic and social regeneration of Tipton. Public on-site facilities, such as the sports hall, multi-purpose theatre and two-storey library, are also helping to place the school at the heart of the community. A Media Wall, which is visible from the main road outside of the academy, projects images, news and events relating to school, further establishing a connection between the academy and the surrounding area.
The results at the academy have dramatically improved in recent years. In August 2010, the academy received record exam results with 95% of students getting 5 A* - C grade GCSEs and a Contextual Value Added (CVA) figure of 1042 at Key Stage 4 (putting it amongst the top 10% of schools nationally for value added).
Michael Gernon, Academy Principal, said: “We are delighted with the completed academy buildings and the school’s opening is an extremely proud moment for students and staff. The academy’s flexible design will be key in implementing the Opening Minds curriculum and reflects our school’s values, which are summed-up by our motto, ‘transforming learning, transforming lives’.”
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