Designing Schools: The Value of the Education Brief

By Judy Bruce

Writing an education brief is a deep and detailed process, but it allows school leaders to consider their unique value propositions and what physical spaces might prepare them to grow and enable innovative teaching and learning.

In this article, Dr Gabrielle Wall (Ringa Whao and experienced Navigator) shares with us her insights and wisdom. 

The process of writing an education brief can be daunting but a sound education brief is essential in master planning for roll growth and enabling innovative structures for teaching and learning. It provides an opportunity for school leaders to reflect on what makes their school unique and what spaces facilitate their delivery of the curriculum. In this article I want to share my experience in co-designing education briefs and make a case for why they are so useful, beyond just master planning.

What is the purpose of the Education Brief?

The education brief summarises the character of a school, including its vision, mission, values, special character, community, and teaching and learning practices. School leaders outline everything that makes their school unique, and these initial scene-setting sections of the brief then feed into the later sections that outline the specific requirements for physical spaces.

The Ministry of Education and architects use this document to master plan the school for the coming years, considering the wants and needs of the school regarding physical spaces, as well as upholding the character and history of the school. There are edits and iterations along the way, but the education brief is the first piece of the puzzle to creating and renovating spaces.

It is also an excellent opportunity to engage with the local community on what is required. How might they use the space? What key aspects of the school site are the most important to them that need to be kept? What are the key areas for improvement to make the school the hub of the community? What is important to their rangatahi to ensure they have a sense of belonging? This feedback can be gathered and incorporated into the education brief, but can also be used by the school to see how they are currently going and where they might need to focus efforts.

Why is it important?

Compiling the brief can feel like a challenge and it should involve a lot of back and forth, but getting it right can open schools to new, innovative types of learning. This means creating enabling spaces, such as spaces that can be opened up to be larger, have different types of media, accommodate different physical and cultural activities, open up to the community, etc. Schools can consider their current practices and their vision for teaching and learning in the future, and incorporate this into their physical design. If lacking detail or ambition, schools run the risk of limiting themselves in the future.

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Top tips for writing

While not an exhaustive list, these tips are things I encounter frequently when engaging with schools on their education briefs.

· Use a navigator. The process can be difficult, and a navigator can help guide the visioning writing process. This requires a lot of back and forth, looking at physical spaces and determining what needs to be improved.

· Be ambitious. Education briefs should be aspirational and outline a long-term vision.

· The devil is in the detail. As with many things, a great design comes down to the little details. When describing spaces, be sure to include those little details such as climate controls, plenty of power outlets, ample student and staff storage, space for displaying finished projects, etc., that will make the space great.

· Always consider inclusive spaces. I’ll touch on this more in the following section, but it is important to plan ahead for the diverse learners and community your school will serve. Spaces should be accessible and welcoming, and not make students feel like outsiders. Consider things like handrails, wide thoroughfares, colours that don’t distract, isolated de-escalation areas, automatic doors, ramps, large writing on signage, bilingual (or trilingual signage), gender-neutral bathrooms and changing spaces.

· Consider comfort. Lots of things will contribute to how teachers and ākonga feel in a space, and these can be detailed in your design. Some things might also be specific to your region. For example, I have worked with schools in remote areas that are particularly impacted by rain, wind, and snow, and need extra consideration for climate controls that keep ākonga warm or consider the presence of ice on outdoor circulation routes. What does your school need to keep everyone operating at their best?

· Engage your community. This is not only an opportunity to add quality feedback to your space design but is an opportunity to get general feedback on how your school is perceived by the community.

Plan for inclusion

Inclusion means a great deal more than having spaces that can accommodate diverse learners. Spaces should be designed to enable different pedagogies and practices in a safe and welcoming environment, considering what their unique needs are rather than expecting students to assimilate. Neurodiverse learners, for example, might require de-escalation spaces, quiet zones, muted colours, and climate control.

I’ve worked recently on how to make schools more inclusive of gender-diverse ākonga. The education brief is actually an important document to enable this, as schools can explicitly state that they require gender-neutral bathrooms and changing areas. Schools might not believe they have transgender or gender diverse ākonga, but these students may not be comfortable being out yet, or may not be at the school yet. By planning spaces in advance, schools send an important message that they are a safe and welcoming space.

I recommend considering these things during the education brief writing stage to ensure that you have what you need to be a school of choice for your community. Many schools have diversity and/or inclusivity in their vision, values, or strategic plan, and the education brief is an opportunity to reflect inclusivity in the design of the school, alongside supporting ākonga learning and wellbeing.

Tārai Kura Ringa Whao may be able to support your school writing an Ed Brief. Email us to learn more: