The quality and implementation of your school master plan can make the difference between a valued success or an expensive failure. This guide offers introductory advice to help schools and school leaders make the most of their master planning project. It is intended for those considering, or in the early stages of, a school re-design program.

Step – 1 Pedagogy, People & Place

The purpose of master planning is to look to the future of your school in the context your history, culture and values. It establishes the guidelines by which to create a campus of learning that will endure for decades to come.

However, a successful master plan is more than a tool to improve the physical condition of the school – it is a vehicle by which you can envision a sustainable future for teaching and learning at your school, and should be aligned with your people, pedagogy and place.

The danger for school leaders is that hard-won funding is wasted on a design intervention that fails to achieve the school’s long-term objectives.

An ill-considered master plan can leave a mess of extensions and new buildings that are quickly outdated on a site that is incompatible to future adaption.

A failed master plan is not only an expensive waste, but it will also leave a legacy that is a burden to students, staff and the community.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”

– Winston Churchill

“School design is best slow cooked, St Ursula’s roll out the 4th stage of their master plan”

Step 2- Getting Started

Whilst master plans are often triggered by a school building program, it is important to first interrogate the strengths, weakness, opportunities and perceived threats of your existing campus.

Example strengths

Distinctive civic frontage, a strong historic style or sense of sporting / academic tradition.

Example weaknesses

Legacy of mis-matched architectural building styles, with no coherent narrative for learning.

Hard to navigate to and through eclectic and outdated buildings and external areas.

Example opportunities

Unification of a campus through the integration of both indoor and outdoor space.

Maximising potential and celebrating the schools heart by realising value from under-utilised land.

Bringing new life to tired buildings through refurbishment and re-imaging of space.

“O’Connor College taking the opportunity to celebrate its heritage”

Step 3 – Plan to master plan

Too often master plans are developed because the school is considering or has the funding for a new building. Don’t wait until your vision is blinkered by an urgent need or want to build. School projects are best slow cooked, with a team of trusted advisers who understand and support the uniqueness of your school. Rather than a single building being the driving force for change, take time to consider your priorities and appetite for change before you fix on a specific building or facility. Future enable your school by challenging the ideas in your master plan regularly, not just as a knee jerk reaction to the needs of new leadership, or a funding windfall. Time and critical thinking will add depth and clarity to your vision and lead to more enduring outcomes.

Step 4- Be on Purpose

Schools are not about buildings they are about education. And education is not just about school, it is about people. School is where we forge relationships that enable people to learn. A successful master plan builds upon the existing relationships between people and their learning. Seek out the experiences of students, staff and parents at your school. Bring attention to these experiences through the master planning process. Engage, empower and value your school community as contributors.

Step 5- Define your educational brief

“Master planning educational reform at Good Samaritan College”

Provide your design team with an educational brief that identifies and defines what is important about your school. Balance thinking about the school’s vision for education with personal ideas about building requirements. You should solve the most important problems for your school before considering other, more eye-catching improvements.

Step 6 – Bolster your creative confidence

Don’t forget to clearly define how and with whom you want the master planning process to run. Who is the master plan for? Who are the stakeholders and when and how do they input ideas? Defining how you want to work provides not only student and teacher agreement but will also result in better formed ideas tailored to the specific needs of those the school serves.

“Focus on creativity and challenging the status quo”

Step 7 – Stay true to who you are

“Our Lady of the Sacred Heart celebrating Catholicity”

Any proposed building works should aim to unify the appearance of your school and offer a positive message about your identity. Create a design guide that is a reference palette for this and any future development. Look for solutions that are long lasting and enduring. Building projects should be unique to you and your school, and respond to your vision, time frame and budget.

Step 8 – Innovate in the right place

Look at the physical and emotional aspects of your school facilities. Ask your students and staff about problems with layout and circulation. Where are the bottlenecks? Does it take too long to get from one area of the school to another? Use empathy to understand what impacts on the emotions and well-being of your students, teachers and parents in the school. Engage in bottom up collaboration to uncover the real and perceived problems that can only be solved using a human centred approach.

Step 9- Stay focused and on budget

“Creatively crafted specialist space Marist Sisters College”

Most schools have a limited budget, and it can be easy to see this budget rapidly swallowed up by one or two major design interventions, such as a major building or new extension.

Master plans do not have to be dramatic to improve schools significantly. Small details make a big impact on the overall experience. Change how students and visitors are welcomed and / or navigate around the site. Minor interventions can have a big impact on the promotion and perception of your school. Concentrate on a particular Key Learning Area, and don’t forget to seek out critical feedback.

Step 10 – Collaborate and celebrate

“Transforming performing arts for the whole community” Chevalier College

Every dollar and second spent in conversation is worth $ 100 in construction. Decisions you will make today will affect the lives of teachers and students well into the future. Don’t be rushed into building until you are confident that the proposed solution comes from proven need, and not from aspirations of an individual or your design team.

A master plan is a tool for creating a long-term strategy for development. It’s more than a physical site plan – it’s an action plan that helps you to identify which steps to take in achieving what you want for learning and teaching in your school over the next 20 -30 years.

A successful master is a celebration of the people, pedagogy and place that make up the DNA of your learning community. It is a vehicle for change, and provides a long but focused lens, through which you can view the future of learning excellence in your school.

It will provide your school new learning pathways to explore, and enable the future (and changing) needs of your school community.

Good luck, and for further advice or information please contact me at JDH architects.

Jayne Harrison has over 25 year’s experience as a successful architect, designer and entrepreneur. Having previously worked in award winning practices across the globe, she established her own Sydney based practice, JDH architects in 2003.

As a specialist in educational architecture and planning JDH architects has successfully completed over 150 projects across all sectors of education. This success is attributed to Jaynes commitment to human centred design, where collaboration, creativity and critical feedback are key drivers in her pursuit of excellence.

As an engaging public speaker and passionate design thinker, Jayne writes and blogs on architectural educational design and thinking.