Keeping up appearances

When it comes to attracting new students, schools and unis don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, says Simon Fry

Eye-catching, prominent facilities seen at open events and on campus visits can be decisive when potential pupils, students and their parents choose a particular educational establishment. While websites and social media will have given them an impression of what’s on offer, exteriors, landscapes and even animals can wow visitors and help make up their minds. Seen from beyond their boundaries, buildings and developments can also promote urban regeneration. Making a bold statement may not come cheap, but the price of not getting a first impression right can be costlier.

The first impression visitors to Manchester Metropolitan University’s Birley Fields campus receive, for example, is the quality of the environment itself. Four- and five-storey buildings fit in with the surrounding townhouses of modern Hulme, 300 new-plant and mature trees bringing urban ecology and supporting biodiversity. The university is signposted from Whitworth Street in central Manchester, and when visitors arrive they find a 15-acre campus “expressing openness”, according to vice-chancellor John Brooks. Other features which catch the eye have a sustainable theme – electric charging points for cars, secure bicycle parks and cycle and pedestrian routes. On-site information boards tell how Birley has helped MMU become the UK’s greenest university (People and Planet 2013 first, 2014 third).

When buildings are sufficiently tall, favourable first impressions can be made with people beyond their end users, as is the case with many of Steni’s educational projects, including a 136-apartment mixed-use scheme in Islington, London. Steni helped developers Derwent Living create student accommodation on two red routes into the capital, seen by thousands of commuters daily. Initially, permission was refused, but was granted on condition the development was a high-quality landmark building incorporating 20 percent on-site renewable energy generation.

Steni had even greater compulsion to create a good first impression with a seven-storey, £3m student complex in Liverpool’s Islington district, which stands in a key city-centre entry point in an area that had had millions of pounds of investment. Falkland House functions not only as new-generation, luxury, private-rent student accommodation, but also as a wider landmark project featuring five shades of Steni cladding.

The brief at the site of the former Spring Lane College, in one of Sheffield’s most deprived districts, was to create a focal point in the regeneration and development of the area as a whole. As part of the city’s Building Schools for the Future programme, four shades of Steni Colour panels were used on a main arterial route into Sheffield city centre, adding a modern, fun frontage and providing a new identity.

York’s MCE Academy’s £3m arts and media centre reflects the expressive nature of the subjects studied within – performing arts and creative and media courses taken by community arts groups and other schools. The centre’s proximity to York’s ring road meant planners sought a statement building, achieved through the installation of a seven-coloured façade, with pre-cut materials making it easier to follow the intricate design and minimising on-site time and waste.

Encouraging community use and extending design life were the objectives when Solihull’s Valley Infants School planned a £1m modernisation. Five colours of Steni rainscreen panels were used to bring a new look at a school built in 1957. Parents and neighbours who attended a consultation meeting felt the new colours would reflect the school’s vibrancy.

Sometimes school exteriors can deliberately show the passing of the years, as is the case with the timeline murals produced by Dean Tweedy of Marvellous Murals. Depictions of events as diverse as human evolution, Stonehenge’s construction and the Battle of Britain decorate and educate simultaneously.

Dean’s company has painted over 1,000 murals over 20 years, around 200 being for schools. He says: “In the past few years we have found ourselves increasingly working for schools as they look for better ways to inspire pupils and give them a sense of ownership of the building. An increasingly popular location for them is the main wall greeting you as you enter the building. This is sometimes visible from the street, but often it is the first impression you get as you enter the site or it’s where parents wait to pick up their children.”

Hambrough Primary School stands on the A3005 in Southall, London and its 11ft-high mural is visible from this busy main road. Dean based the mural’s overall design on ideas submitted by pupils. Nursery children drew around their hands to produce stencils applied to the wall, while some of the older children made stencils of leaves, flowers butterflies and bugs they held in place for Dean to spray onto the mural.

Tropical plants are not painted but growing in a Solardome glasshouse installation at Essex’s Felmore Primary School, which not only makes a strong first impression, it inspires. This ‘inspirational domes’ project has been praised by OFSTED for providing good additional opportunities for experiencing cross-curricular, creative and environmental projects.

Visitors to the award-winning ‘ecology centre’ at Wellacre Academy in Flixton, Greater Manchester are similarly impressed, according to science and ecology teacher Richard Asha. “They’re absolutely blown away with them, as are the parents, governors and the pupils. The domes provide a real talking point and seem to have a big impact on visitors – ‘it’s just like the Eden Project’ are their first words, or simply, ‘it’s awesome’.” The centre features three Solardome glasshouses and was opened in 2011.

More magical first impressions brought by Solardome are reported by Neil Burton, headteacher of Cleveland’s Westgarth Primary School: “Everyone who goes out there says, ‘wow!’” The space is used for nurture groups, after-school clubs, a debating society, break-out groups and as the school’s Christmas grotto.

Birmingham’s Selly Oak Trust School’s Solardome makes a bold statement to visitors that the school is on the cutting edge of SEN (special educational needs) education. Indeed, since its construction it has attracted visitors from other schools in the SEN network. Used year-round, its excellent acoustics make for the study of sound and music and drama lessons while its openness is perfect for investigating the seasons and the position of the sun, light, reflection and mirror images. The points of the compass, geography and art can be explored in natural light.

Students considering Bournemouth University may be swayed by its Solardome BioDome, added in 2013 to the main campus, where it sits amid a central courtyard. Manipulation of climatic conditions allows for high-quality environmental research. At night it is illuminated by grow lights, making it stand out as a glowing example of innovation and scientific excellence.

FalknerBrowns architects have been called upon to change the perceptions of several universities in recent years, with ‘creating a good first impression’ a significant part of the brief specified by their clients.

When Lancaster University came to replace its sports centre, it took the chance to make its sports provision central to the experience it could offer potential students. Consequently, the facilities formerly located in the centre of its campus were replaced by a new development on the crest of an entrance road, immediately visible to visitors.

The company was also requested to reflect changing times, according to Ian Whittle of FaulknerBrowns. “Newcastle University was aware its student union premises were in a building at a main entrance space from the town, and were one of two or three buildings locals thought of when thinking of ‘Newcastle University’. With time there was concern its bars meant this was seen as a ‘party place’, with other uses like welfare and sports tucked away. It was felt this did not project the university’s values and could be off-putting to potential students who do not drink. Greater equality and inclusivity were sought.” An £8m redevelopment of the six-storey building saw social learning facilities and IT access given priority.

Few educational establishments, however, can match the first impression made by Bath Spa University’s Newton Park campus several miles from the city’s centre, accessed by driving over a cattle grid. Around half of open day visitors in autumn 2014 specifically mentioned the campus as one of the most interesting or enjoyable aspects of their visit. Sheep, swans and protected bat species can all be found, with one visitor commenting, “How many cows were there! I come from the other side of London and to see cows I go to the zoo/farm – surreal experience!”

Given the competition for fee-paying students, universities have been known to pull out all the stops to attract them. Undergraduates and their parents are advised to heed the observations of former NUS president Aaron Porter. “I know of at least one university where flower beds were especially planted for a major weekend open day, which were already dug up and returned to the garden centre before the already enrolled students would return on Monday morning. Other universities would significantly ramp up signage around campus, have a spring clean through their buildings, add a new lick of paint and then pressure hose to clean up walkways and pathways around campus. But most of all, they will be praying to the weather gods the sun shines come open day!”

Making a good first impression, then, is difficult to guarantee, but with forethought schools and universities can swing the odds in their favour. Impactful developments in prominent locations can go a long way to enhancing perceptions and building a brand, and can even help transform the image of the district or city in which they stand. Most leavers and graduates look back on school and varsity days– even decades later – with fondness; a lifetime of loyalty can stem from a fantastic first impression. 

Manchester Metropolitan University W:
Steni W:
Marvellous Murals W:
Solardome W:
FaulknerBrowns W:
Bath Spa University W:


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