Schools How to build a school

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 8 months ago.
  • 27 Sep 2023
Assistant principal Luke Cripps surveys the new flexible spaces at Newlands Primary School. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Principal Ross Dudgeon talks to LOUISE SWINN about the recent renovations at Newlands Primary, and the processes that allow school communities to have input on their built environment.

When principal Ross Dudgeon arrived at Newlands Primary School in 2009, there were fewer than 90 students. “Newlands Primary School was built in 1951 as part of the five-to-six-kilometre boundary around Melbourne – the growth area,” he explains. “Then, when the local Kodak factory closed, the area became a second-class citizen, with a lot of social and cheap housing created, and compounding that was a lack of enrolments in the area, and that went on for some time.”

When thinking about what a new iteration of the school could be, Ross chose to be ambitious. “We decided to be a bilingual school. We started that process in 2015 and numbers have been picking up slowly.” He chose Spanish, because it is one of the world’s most spoken languages – and neighbouring Coburg High School also teaches Spanish, providing continuity.

Local families had been choosing other schools and there was a feeling that perhaps Newlands would close. “It was a perfect storm,” Ross says. He decided it was time to grow and renovate. “The plan started to solidify around 2016–2017 and by 2019 we were provided with $8 million. Robin Scott, the local member, was in Newlands’ corner in trying to develop an appreciation of the school.”

Building new schools has long been priority work for state Labor, and a key initiative when they came into power. “We decided to build a gym – and then, in a later budget, they threw in another $11 million so it meant we could do some serious construction work.”

Ross’s plan was to refurbish the old buildings, build new buildings, and do some landscaping. The first steps were underway when the pandemic hit. “COVID came along and scuppered everything with shortages.” Material costs skyrocketed and the project was scaled back.

Meanwhile, school enrolments have been rising. With more than 330 enrolments now, the school is well on the way to an expected increase to 450 within the next couple of years. This will almost be a return to the student numbers of the 1960s, Ross says, “when it was around 600 kids – the biggest primary school in the area.”

“I wanted an outside classroom attached to each classroom space. … There used to be very little movement in the classroom but now there’s a lot of movement around.”

Ross Dudgeon

The project includes a gym, an admin building and two “learning worlds” that each contain six double classrooms and a collaborative space. Completion of the new buildings is expected by November, and the remaining refurbishment of old buildings and landscaping by April 2024.

Ross describes the process involved in getting the project underway. “The Victorian School Building Authority has a list of architectural firms who have done work for the Department of Education and the VSBA before. According to the school’s budget, they recommend a large, medium and small firm to be interviewed, so we go through an interview process.”

Because the principal works very closely with the architects, Ross was adamant that he needed a good relationship with the architectural firm. He chose Bourke and Bouteloup Architects and he’s been very happy with how things have been going.

“They’ve been really good. They have been working with us on the concept. They did a presentation first of all and then we refined that.”

Ross had a clear sense of what he was looking for. “I wanted an outside classroom attached to each double classroom space so that the kids can be working outside as well as inside. Wrapped around the courtyard is a collaborative space. And then, also in line of sight, an internal courtyard.

It took a bit of research – and, ironically, outside classrooms are all the rage now!”


Photos: Meredith O'Shea

He says the design has changed the way students learn. “There used to be very little movement in the classroom but now there’s a lot of moving around. Open plan is good, but you have to be careful of acoustics, especially with kids who are environmentally sensitive. It may be that 25 kids can fit into an area, but not all units are made exactly the same.”

Ross didn’t want double-storey buildings because of concerns that students on the top floor would be disadvantaged. “Low maintenance was important. But also, they need the capacity to be efficient. They have the air-con, solar panels. I chucked out all the gas heaters because they’re all so inefficient.”

The local community were consulted first, with architect Michael Bouteloup and his team running forums. “Parents are concerned about the climate, the environment and being eco-friendly, but you have to balance that with the cost of the building,” Ross says.

Michael Bouteloup explains the importance of designing with the user experience front of mind. “The pedagogical requirements were quite specific at Newlands because they are a bilingual school, and they have a fairly specific program. We designed for the activities,” Michael says.

“We started by workshopping those with the school to analyse what they want to do as educators, so we broke that down to two dozen different activities, from really small two-person interactions to groups of two or six or the larger year level, which we mapped across the buildings, called learning worlds.

“One of the fundamental activities we designed for was the Builders Program, which is their inquiry program, where they break a class into smaller groups of six and send them out to work fairly independently. So, it was designed to allow the students to get into the landscape and work semi-autonomously and be supervised. Some of that was outdoors, some was in these large presentation areas, so the spaces were designed to accommodate for that.”

“The project was not just producing classrooms, it was about embedding the pedagogy into it.”

Michael Bouteloup

The learning worlds are arranged in classroom pairs, Michael explains, “one room in Spanish and one in English, with presentation and breakout rooms – that’s one suite. With good vision, so that the teacher can see groups of kids and roam around.”

Michael says that, from a design perspective, the Newlands site is “a unique one, a 1950s campus, quite iconic with these hexagonal classrooms. But nowadays they’re too small and they just don’t suit the modern requirements.” These heritage-listed spaces are being repurposed as specialist classrooms.

Michael also mentions the mounting material costs. “The limited budget was more acute in the post-COVID years, where the pricing we got was beyond what was planned, but the outcomes will still be really strong and transform the existing campus.”

Parent Janya Clemens is “mostly excited about the gym and its potential capacity as a shareable community space.”

Grade 6 student leader El says of the build: “The new learning worlds will be a big change for Newlands because there will be more space for learning and we will have better equipment and resources.”

Listening to those who will be using the space – staff, students and families – was a priority for Michael. “The school has a strong community and a strong sense of the pedagogical approach,” he says. “The project was not just about producing classrooms; it was about embedding the pedagogy into it.”

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