The department store could be the new model of FE the economy needs

Re-imagining the archetypal deep-plan buildings as high street educational hubs could yield timely benefits for providers and communities

Re-imagining the archetypal deep-plan buildings as high street educational hubs could yield timely benefits for providers and communities

5 Jan 2024, 9:59

Recently, the head of John Lewis, Dame Sharon White called for a royal commission into the dwindling number of shops on our high streets. With department stores also quickly becoming graveyards of the prestige brands of yesteryear, we have to start thinking creatively about how these spaces could be used to fulfil other sector needs – no least, further education.

Headlines around retail and consumer footfall tend to focus on arguments about online consumerism, pandemic hangovers, Brexit and economic changes. Dame White echoed this, citing a circle of taxation, changing working practices and environmental transport policies, each contributing to more than 6,000 store closures across the UK in the past five years.

But as our interactions with town centres continue to evolve, it’s not clear that a return to the way things were is neither feasible or desirable. Instead, we must make strong decisions about the way we use the spaces left behind by flagships of the shopping experience.

Take the humble and rapidly vanishing department store. These are huge spaces, primed for repurposing. Recently, we embarked on a RIBA-led venture to reimagine them as education entities. Our analysis concluded that department stores could quite easily be integrated as further education hubs.

Further education caters for a wide demographic of learners, from 16–19-year-olds looking to continue their academic, vocational learning or apprenticeships, to increasing numbers of adult learners looking to upskill or reskill. These institutions need to be located in the right place and provide the right facilities to provide the right learning environments.

In developing our concept, we specifically examined how it could apply to the growing NEET population, providing a means to get people back into employment, education or training. Our high streets could be an untapped resource to align job centres with specialist further education facilities – a symbiotic relationship offering training, re-training and learning opportunities to meet the needs of this group, allowing them to engage with learning where they are and acting as a fulcrum for businesses to find and train the right employees amid skills shortages.

Our high streets could be an untapped resource

To examine our concept initially, we took a real-world example: Kendals in Manchester, an archetypical deep-plan department store. We mapped out how we would transform this space into a vibrant learning environment across seven storeys. At the core of our concept – ReStorED – curriculum areas act as shop windows, encouraging students to part with their time to learn a subject – literally ‘shopping’ for their future within accessible, open learning environments.

This in turn is linked to real-life industries and businesses. The lower floors provide community-accessible spaces like theatres and studios based around performing arts, restaurant and kitchen facilities for culinary courses and digital spaces for IT and coding courses. The opportunity here, is to curate a grown-up, life-long learning environment, geared towards training, re-skilling and up-skilling and drawing in adult learners who may have reservations about setting foot on a typical college campus.

Our concept delivers an experiential journey for users via connecting staircases and walkways to connect curriculum areas and encourage cross-fertilisation, with a climbing wall and indoor green spaces, incorporating a sense of fun and biophilic principles into our design choices.

A central tenet to our architectural landscape was reuse and retrofit – achieving ‘Passive House’ standards and reducing embodied carbon through repurposing the existing fabric.

Internally, learning spaces are created with Oriented Strand Board (OSB) material. Its light, economical and adaptable nature allows inner partitions to be created and moved at will, with collaborative learning or closed-off nooks for quiet study, depending on course requirements.

From an exterior perspective, we envisioned the roof as outdoor recreational space, powered by renewable energy and accompanied by sensory gardens and allotments, encouraging students to really connect with biodiversity and think deeper about the reusability of their environment in an inclusive and productive space.

This venture really questioned our choices around regeneration: the decline of the high street, but more so challenging the norms we have become accustomed to. The department store environment presents an obvious setting to take colleges out of their traditional environments and refashion them as central institutions in a renewed town centre estate.

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  1. Peter marples

    Are you real. This was advocated in 2005 and was developed into a model by carter and carter with colleges but mr linford and many college principals saw it a major threat

    Please don’t think this new

    The 3aaa model of 2010 was of units in colleges – we had 8 and the esfa tried to destroy it.

    If you think this is visionary you are 20 years late and to be blunt no vision in the sector to achieve it