Enhanced integration through innovative school architecture

24:e sep. 2021

At Søndervangskolen in southern Aarhus, 90 per cent of pupils come from a non-native Danish background.

The school is located in a deprived residential area, and has received considerable attention from abroad after it managed to significantly raise its pupils’ academic standards as well as their well-being.

The recipe for this success has included massive investments in the school’s buildings and facilities.

Troldtekt, Søndervangsskolen

Most Danish primary and lower secondary schools were built in the 1960s and 70s, and have been left more or less untouched since then. As a result, the learning environments in many schools are out of step with the times.

For the majority of pupils, this is not seriously hampering their schooling, especially if their parents are supportive. However, the situation is quite different for pupils whose families have not lived in Denmark for very long, or whose parents never attended school themselves. The schools have a special responsibility for the learning and well-being of these pupils, especially if the school is located in a disadvantaged area and is perhaps on the Danish Government’s ‘ghetto list’.

This was exactly the challenge that Søndervangskolen in Viby in southern Aarhus had to address.

“Ten years ago, not many schools were capable of accommodating a school population of whom 90 per cent come from a non-native Danish background and from a disadvantaged neighbourhood. The transformation of Søndervangskolen and the residential neighbourhood has taken significant investments from both the local housing association and by the City of Aarhus. And thanks to the expertise of those involved and a little luck, we’re now on the other side, and the pupils’ average marks have increased significantly and the teachers’ sickness absence is at an all-time low,” says Martin Bernhard, deputy head at Søndervangskolen.

He is also a member of the panel of experts judging entries for the event company Nohrcon’s School Building of the Year award.

Rethinking both building and strategy

As part of the transformation of Søndervangskolen, the school buildings were renovated in a number of stages between 2013 and 2019. NERD architects (formerly SMAK) acted as consultants for the City of Aarhus.

Troldtekt, Søndervangsskolen

Martin Bernhard explains that when Søndervangskolen embarked on the project, it was the only one of its kind in Denmark. They therefore sought inspiration from multi-ethnic schools in London, Manchester and the USA, which had more experience with integration. Further inspiration was gleaned from a slightly unusual source.

“We were keen to learn from the private sector, and to move in the direction of a more management-by-objectives and more corporate approach. Some state primary and lower secondary schools are burdened by institutional lethargy. If we were to change things, we needed a renewed focus on the pupils as active players with a shared responsibility for their own learning, a new mindset among our teachers and positive collaboration with the parents.”

In addition to the management-by-objectives approach and stronger focus on the performance of both teachers and pupils, the school’s physical environment also had to offer a completely different and better experience. The school’s ambitions had to be aligned with what the school actually looked like – and what it signalled.

“If the architecture and the interior design are completely out of sync with 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and the idea of co-responsibility, it can be difficult to see what the school can actually do for the pupils,” says Martin Bernhard, and emphasises the importance of the renovation project.

Troldtekt, Søndervangsskolen

Broad focus on indoor climate

Søndervangskolen has worked with the acoustics, air, light and colours in connection with the various phases of the renovation project. A 1.2 km ‘movement path’ has transformed the long and monotonous corridors into an active part of the school with activity zones that can be used for teaching, during breaks and after school hours.

Troldtekt acoustic panels have been installed throughout the school, while specially designed box rooms with climbing ropes and play equipment feature custom-painted acoustic panels. Special zones have been created, where background music subdues unnecessary noise to help pupils concentrate on their schoolwork.

“The sound level and the choice of materials are key to ensuring a conducive learning environment. It’s not that the children are noisy, but there is naturally a high level of background noise in schools.”

The physical environment also has implications for vandalism. The level of vandalism at Søndervangskolen has declined sharply, and in the past five years has basically been non-existent.

“Everything plays a role. Improving the physical facilities has really helped, because even though the school is open to the local neighbourhood, and we have invested considerable sums in various equipment, we don’t experience any vandalism. At the end of the day, if you like a place, you are less likely to want to ruin it.”

A recipe that works

It has taken a long-term strategy and many small steps for Søndervangskolen to get to where it is today. It no longer has a reputation as a worn and deprived school, but as an attractive and modern Folkeskole that receives 50 visits a year from both Danish and foreign groups. Both private companies and public authorities are curious to know how you can create a high-performance school in a disadvantaged residential area.

Søndervangskolen is in dialogue with the local community and the various ethnic associations, and serves as a meeting place for all, even for those without children attending the school. For example, communal meals are organised. According to Martin Bernhard, the local area is much stronger and more self-reliant now than it was ten years ago.

“The changes rub off on the children, and it means a lot that their parents know the school, and that relations are good. The school’s physical environment signals that we take the children and their schooling seriously,” he says, and adds:

“Every day, the school buildings remind us of our transformation and our mission. It is sometimes easy to forget this in the bustle of everyday life, but the architecture has become a symbol of our focus.”

>> Read more about Søndervangskolen and see pictures of the building

Troldtekt interview with Martin Bernhard, deputy head at Søndervangskolen in the Danish city of Aarhus

Martin Bernhard, deputy head at Søndervangskolen.