In architecture, who’s teaching the teachers?

There is a longstanding relationship between practice and education in architecture. For decades, architects and designers have divided their time in the office with training a new generation in the university design studio.

But practitioners often head into teaching without any formal training, the assumption being that success in practice guarantees an ability to be able to pass on your skills as an educator. Sadly, in my experience, this isn’t the case, and students and teachers are struggling in a system that is failing them both.

Many architecture departments are made up of practitioners on hourly paid lecturer (HPL) contracts, each with at least one other job to support their income, at a time when architects commonly report exploitative and unsustainable working conditions in practice.

Students are far more likely to accept these circumstances when they enter the field if they are normalised by their tutors, who endure and seemingly thrive in this environment. Both are subjected to a culture of long hours, continuous deadlines and, as a consequence, can burn out. By endorsing these practices in university, we develop a tolerance for them when we reach practice.

In order to break the pernicious cycle of unsustainable working conditions, tutors need proper training. The promotion of healthy working practices should be central to the lessons they deliver to their students.

The RIBA and ARB should take on a leading role in advocating teacher training for the profession

Shumi Bose has taught at London-based architecture schools since 2009 and is now pursuing a sponsored part-time PGCE. She praises the experience so far and describes affirmative processes of academic staff studying each other’s teaching methods, discussing the ideas of intersectional authors such as bell hooks and meaningful opportunities for self-reflection. ‘It’s really all the stuff we need to learn as teachers,’ she says. ‘There’s a lot of discussion about things like inclusivity and equality in the classroom, about cultures of learning, about inbuilt prejudices and mutual support.’

Some universities such as Bath Spa – a brand-new architecture school (as yet unaccredited) – are offering two-week teaching courses for all their new tutors as an employment requirement.

However, this is far from the norm and few teachers in architecture schools are given the chance to take such a qualification. It comes at a significant cost in both time and finances, which are rarely covered by the university, especially for temporary or part-time staff.

And yet current circumstances indicate that some form of qualification should be a necessity. Pastoral care has been historically seen as a privilege for students and almost non-existent for teachers. Both are forced to develop methods of coping to withstand and prosper in what is a notoriously intense and competitive environment.

‘If within my teaching faculty we could have half of the discussions we’ve had in my PGCE I’d be so much happier’, says Bose. ‘Just in terms of the ethical and moral practices that we’re all sort of chancing and making up otherwise.’

In the absence of training, it is easy to regurgitate the lessons we, as tutors, learnt as students, often with little critique or recognition of the cultural shifts that have taken place since.

That’s not to say that tutors aren’t trying. The opposite is true in most cases but without proper training and avenues of consultation, we are failing the faculty by depriving them of important skills and confidence to deal with difficult situations.

So what can be done?

As institutions whose primary purpose is to maintain and uphold the standards of the profession, the RIBA and ARB should take on a leading role in advocating teacher training for the profession. A bespoke training short course could be developed, introducing educators to the basic tenets of teaching: safeguarding, communication and compassion. And it should promote sustainable working conditions in the industry.

Architecture teachers are likely to lack the time and money to pursue a PGCE independently, but practices could promote and subsidise the course in the same way they might contribute to an employee’s Part 3 qualification. Such an investment would fulfil their ESG responsibilities and strengthen their workforce in the process.

The demand to work in a more equitable culture should be built into a student’s education, practised by their tutors and advocated by their institutions fighting for the same goals. Providing this support to architecture teachers is vital if we want to ensure a more sustainable, more inclusive and, frankly, more enjoyable experience for the next generation of architects.

Siraaj Mitha is head of Open City’s Accelerate, a free design, education and mentoring programme aiming to diversify the built environment professions