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UCL Academy: the building behind the brains
1 February 2013
After a four-month delay caused by the collapse of one of its main building contractors, the UCL Academy is finally open for onsite business. Ele Cooper talks to Vice-Principal Robin Street about the Academy’s ethos and way of working while taking a look around the building itself.
The UCL Academy was never going to be a run-of-the-mill institution. The only school in Britain with a university as sole sponsor, it teaches the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC), with integrated (self-directed) learning activities ranging from rock-climbing and chess to crochet and journalism, and mandatory Mandarin lessons for every pupil and staff member. But the building and grounds are just as interesting as the learning that goes on in them.
Every last detail of the brand-new, six-storey structure in Swiss Cottage has been planned to fit in with the UCL Academy ethos. On each floor is a ‘super studio’, a long room with a central tiered amphitheatre-style learning space for more traditional teaching sessions and plenty of space on either side for breakout activities. Generally, a group of around 90 students will gather to hear an introduction to that day’s learning session, and they will then separate into smaller groups around the super studio to work on different areas of the ’big idea’ in question. The studios have been designed to be flexible: some pupils might sit on beanbags, others on benches and others at tables that have been specially designed to be conducive to group work, and all the furniture, even the tiered seating, is easily moveable.
'Super studios' provide flexible learning space with tiered, auditorium-style seating and smaller breakout areas
Vice-Principal Robin Street says: “The idea is that there are pockets of collaborative learning going on throughout the space. Four or five teachers plan and lead each session as a team, and students work in groups of six – they will stay with this same group throughout school – learning together.” Around 60% of teaching will be done in the super studios, with these sessions lasting two hours.
Robin and his colleagues work hard to avoid the ‘sage from the stage’ approach, instead guiding and directing students through interactive learning. The Academy also emphasises the importance of allowing pupils to develop at their own rate: rather than being in year groups, they are divided into Foundation Level (which would traditionally be Year 7), Level 1 (Years 8 and 9), Level 2 (Years 10 and 11) and Level 3 (Years 12 and 13 – or sixth form). Pupils will only move up a level once they’re ready; this approach has been informally dubbed ‘stage not age’.
The UCL Academy building was designed by architects Penoyre and Prasad
This drive to avoid pupils (and staff) focusing on age extends to a vertical learning approach, whereby tutor groups comprise pupils from all Levels. As the Academy only opened in September 2012, the school currently has just Foundation Level and Level 3 students, but eventually tutor groups will be made up of pupils from every age, from 11 to 18.
Every pupil sits in one of five houses, each named after a constellation, and the building itself denotes which house area you’re in with colour themes: in one area the staircase is orange, in another the carpets and table edges are all green. Pupils’ ties are also marked with the house colour (there is a strict uniform for everyone apart from the Level 3s, who must still dress smartly – the Academy may be cutting-edge in many respects but the traditional values of discipline and respect still lie at its heart). The aim of the vertical learning, houses and compulsory group Mandarin lessons is to encourage a sense of community and citizenship.
Chess is just one of the options on offer as part of the UCL Academy's self-directed learning programme
There are no indoor corridors at the UCL Academy: all walkways are outdoors, skirting around the periphery of the building, enabling pupils to get regular bursts of fresh air and enjoy the school’s phenomenal views: from the sixth floor you can see St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, the Shard and the Gherkin. There is also a range of outdoor spaces, including a roof garden, an all-weather mini-gym, a large play area, amphitheatre, two five-a-side football pitches and space for 150 bikes. Inside, as well as the super studios, are dance, art and music studios, a science lecture theatre, engineering workshops, kitchens for cookery lessons and a large assembly hall. Says Robin, “The entire design has been about creating a space that will inspire and help students and staff feel that they’re in a place that is innovative, focused, academic and exciting to work in.”
The Academy has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) specialism, and all Foundation Year students study Engineering. But despite this specialism, Level 3 students are required to take at least one Arts subject at AS level, and the importance the school places on providing an international curriculum is reflected through its extensive language provision.
Spaces around the school, even the canteen, are colour-coded according to which house area they're located in
The IMYC curriculum means that pupils study themes from multiple perspectives. Robin says, “One of the first topics we’re teaching is balance. That might mean that students have to balance a mathematical equation, balance a debate in English, consider the importance of balance in geographical eco-systems, learn to balance on a beam in PE and then think about the idea of balance in Religious Studies. We’re encouraging them to think independently and gradually learn to make those links themselves.”
E-learning is also a key priority, although only when deemed appropriate: laptops and iPads are available to anyone who wants to use them and there is wifi access throughout the building. Projector screens can be connected to iPads so teachers can bring a student’s work up on the big screen when they want to share something, and students use the MAPS e-portfolio system which they and their teachers can access at any time. “This means that if, for example, a pupil is studying symbolism in buildings and then when they’re out at the weekend they see a striking 12th-century church, they can take a picture with their phone and with one tap upload it to their learning journal,” says Robin. “We’re not using these systems because they’re ‘cool’, and we certainly don’t want to become known as ‘that academy that’s got loads of iPads’; we want to be known as a place where technology completely supports the learning that students are doing. It’s just a tool.”
Technology is used extensively in the UCL Academy's teaching – but only when appropriate
The Academy is very much a community school, open to anyone who lives within a 0.84-mile radius (as per the Borough of Camden’s catchment area policy). With no entrance requirements for Foundation Level students (Level 3s must have achieved at least six Bs at GCSE), it is made up of pupils from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. It is perhaps this open-minded approach, along with the school’s ground-breaking combination of curriculum, ethos and building design, that led it to be so oversubscribed, with seven applications for every place at Foundation Level.
The cachet given to the school before it even opened by the inclusion of ‘UCL’ in its name is bound to have affected public perceptions, too. The idea for sponsoring an Academy stems from UCL’s commitment to playing an active role in secondary education and the desire to build a mutually beneficial relationship with a school that blurs the boundaries between secondary and higher education. The university will open up its facilities and expertise on a formal basis to students. Academics will regularly visit the school to share their learning and research with pupils, and the university’s own student bodies are already getting actively involved, both as mentors (to be known as ‘learning companions’) and in a range of other areas of school life (for example, the UCLU Musical Theatre Society will be working with the UCL Academy and pupils from nearby Regent’s High School to put on a performance of Hairspray next month). Robin says that some UCL departments have also expressed an interest in using the Academy as a research base for their own work as the school becomes more established.
The UCL Academy staff are well aware of how vital and mutually beneficial this collaborative relationship is. Robin says, “One of the top academic institutions in the world has designed what they think is the best model for a 21st-century school and now they’re helping us make that a reality. When staff get a place at the UCL Academy they think they’ve won the lottery.”
It seems likely that the pupils do too.
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