Cotton EndForest School
Cotton End Lower School was originally squeezed into a small Victorian building. Growth in the local population meant that the school needed to expand and increase its capacity. Relocating to a new site, just down the road, on the edge of a community forest, created the opportunity to carve out a new kind of inspiring learning environment.
Originating in Scandinavia, forest schools are based on the philosophy that education is formed on play and activity, whilst creativity is nurtured through self-activity and investigation.
About the project
Cotton End Forest School is a flagship, purpose-built forest school that will provide 686 much-needed school places and inspire a generation to learn from the world around them.
Following the principles that an outdoor approach to learning, education and play in familiar surroundings are key to a child’s development, we worked closely with the school and Bedford Borough Council to design a campus that would allow for a three-form entry primary school and a 60-place nursery, all located within a beautiful parkland setting just down the road from the old school building.
Working closely with the school and council during a series of 12 collaborative engagement sessions, we developed the concept of the forest school and designed an inspiring learning environment, both inside and out.
Through collaboration, we’ve taken the school on a hugely positive design journey, shaping the design of the building around their ideas. Together, we have created an inspirational and exciting environment where children can thrive and enjoy their learning, regardless of budget constraints. Working with Willmott Dixon and SCAPE we’ve carved out a new kind of learning environment on a local authority budget.
With forest schools taking an outdoor approach to learning, the outside environment is as important, if not more so, than the inside. All within extensive parkland that backs onto woodland, the relationship between the buildings and the landscape are exploited, encouraging the children to explore and interact with the outside environment during their day-to-day schooling.
The children will learn inside and out, in specially designed teaching pavilions, as well as outdoor classrooms and amphitheatre. We’ve also created cutting-edge teacher training facilities to help the school achieve landmark national support status. It’s a project that’s inspired everyone involved – and a generation to learn from the world around them.
An Exceptional Outcome
Cotton End Forest School is now a thriving three form-entry primary school with a 60-place nursery. Taking inspiration from the outside world, we shaped a new kind of school environment. One where children learn both inside and out.
What makes Cotton End stand out is the focus on the whole site, not just the buildings. The relationship between the architecture and its surrounding landscape was an important, and concept-defining, focal element of the design. It is constructed largely from timber to maximise sustainability and the external materials have been chosen to be sympathetic to the landscape, encouraging harmony between the built environment and the natural world.
Four teaching pavilions, distinguishable by colour to promote independent wayfinding, each have a central learning zone. Corridors have been replaced by a communal, open plan learning environment for individual support and group lessons. All classrooms open directly to the outside, and each pavilion has a ‘tack room’ where the children can don their waterproofs and wellies before heading outside. Lessons take place outdoors 60% of the time whatever the weather - there is never the wrong type of weather to be outside, only the wrong type of clothing.
Once a flat site, Cotton End has been brought alive by reusing 98.7% of waste materials to create bunds, a pond and mounds. Rainwater harvesting, surface water drainage swales, bug hotels, solar panels and recycling help the children to learn about sustainability within their own environment and play an active part in achieving it. Landscaped features create perfect pockets of space for children to explore. Meadows, forests, riverbanks, a pond with dipping platform, a market garden, cooking facilities and a café all form key, functional zones, allowing the journey of discovery to take place organically as children learn through engaged activity.
The approach to the school forms a ‘gateway’ to the learning forest with an avenue of trees leading the way to the main entrance of the school. Communal and staff facilities are located within the gateway building providing out-of-hours community amenities, and the inclusion of cutting-edge teacher training facilities will help the school to become a pioneering national facility for forest school teaching. The gateway building also forms the secure line of the site, behind this, children are free to roam and explore.
The introduction of wildflower meadows, orchards, allotments, swales and pond have created many new habitats for a diverse range of native ecology, with the school already home to ducks, rabbits and deer. In addition to this, through working in partnership with the Marston Vale Forest Centre, the new school forms a strategic part of Bedford Borough Council’s long-term plan to reforest large swathes of Bedfordshire and, as such, will have tree coverage of 30% across the site.
The project also generated local economic benefits. 73% of labour was from within 20 miles, increasing local employment opportunities whilst ensuring the spend stayed within the local community. Additionally, 95.9% of the project spend was with local SMEs, supporting in the growth of responsible regional businesses.
Karen Headland, Head Teacher of Cotton End Forest School
Architectural Design of the Year 2018
London Construction Awards 2018
SPACES Yearbook and Civic Building of the Year