x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

BSAK's new primary school wing in a class of its own

When a new wing was being planned at one of Abu Dhabi's oldest British schools, pupils and parents had a say. The results are stunning.

A classroom at the newly refurbished and expanded British School Al Khubairat. Razan Alzayani / The National
A classroom at the newly refurbished and expanded British School Al Khubairat. Razan Alzayani / The National

ABU DHABI // When contractors were hired to rebuild the primary wing of one of the oldest British schools in the capital, the brief was simple: keep it modern but functional.

It also had to complete the existing campus, said Mark Yeowell, the head teacher of the primary section at British School Al Khubairat.

Construction began in 2010 on the three-storey primary wing with room for 950 pupils, which was to replace a 30-year-old single-floor building.

Mr Yeowell, who has been with the school for eight years, described the new wing as a labour of love.

Pupils and parents were asked what they thought was needed in the project.

"The world has changed, education has changed and parents' demands of what they want has changed," said Mr Yeowell.

Bernard Hunt, the project manager at Wates Construction International, believes the new campus is "future proof". "The facilities in the old wing were very last decade," he said. "Now the school is built to last for another 30 years."

On the first day in the new wing, Mr Hunt waited at the door to see the reactions of pupils taking classes there for the first time. "And their reaction was: 'Wow'," he said.

"When I first saw the design, I did not quite understand it," he said. "But this is now the proudest thing I have built. All the areas work extremely well for the particular age group."

From Foundation Stage 1 to Year 6, there are five high-tech and fully resourced classes for each age group. The wing also has three age-specific IT rooms, a multimedia suite, a science lab, a food and technology lab, an indoor sports hall and a 25-metre swimming pool.

The children's favourite new feature is a "magical" Alice in Wonderland-inspired two-floor library, which would not be look out of place in Hogwarts. Harry Potter's fictional school for wizards.

Mr Yeowell refers to it as the heart of the school. "We wanted pupils to be excited about books," he said.

The aisles on the lower level, dedicated to fiction, are arranged in a maze around a centre that has bulky armchairs and a screen made to appear like a fireplace.

Dan Batson, the assistant head teacher who designed it, said it turned out exactly as he had imagined it.

"We knew it had to be magical and allow the children to lose themselves in a creative space," he said.

The second floor is dedicated to non-fiction books. It was created with research and collaborative work in mind.

Jen Sykes, 10, said it was difficult to describe the school in a word.

"I am so excited to study here," she said. "I love the science lab. We did not have this before. We used to have practical lessons in class."

Another area that took careful planning was the music school, where more than 500 pupils from the ages of 7 to 18 take twice-weekly lessons to learn instruments such as the guitar, cello, piano and violin.

"This is an important area for the school," said Mr Hunt. "The old one leaked noise everywhere. This is acoustically designed. We even had screen tests with children here during the building phase."

Construction of the new wing took two years and some of it was carried out during school hours - just two metres away from active classes. But care was taken to ensure teaching was not disrupted and safety was maintained.

"We did a lot of the noisy construction at night," said Mr Hunt.

Mr Yeowell, who spearheaded much of the project, will be leaving the school at the end of the year after completion of the final phase, an outdoor sports facility.

"This is every head teacher's dream, to be asked how they want their school to look," he said. "It has truly been a creatively fulfilling aspect of my job, even though I will not be here to enjoy the result."