Lessons on school building design

14 Nov 2009


‘Be brave!’ That was the advice to anyone designing a new school from Professor Stephen Heppell.


 He should know -  he is sponsoring a new Academy to be built in a quarry!


Professor Heppell was addressing a global conference on school design which, appropriately, was held in a state-of-the-art brand new school in Knowsley on Merseyside.


 Amongst the bold new ideas for school design were the notions of schools without corridors, all-through schools for students aged 0 to 21, and providing unisex toilets opening straight onto teaching spaces (so there are no ‘blind spots’ for students who might want to get up to things they shouldn’t!).


 A strong case was also made for opening schools in converted factories and offices - more on that in a moment. 


 The key to all of these designs, according to the experts who’d converged on Knowsley for the World Learning Environments Conference, was to start from the question: how do children learn?


 And the consensus was that too often school design fails to take account of the way young people have embraced learning through technology and by interacting with one another. 


Outside school, they are used to learning on the move, whilst multi-tasking, via their phones and the internet, through social network sites, and by working together as a team. 


 By contrast, most schools put pupils into square boxes, deprive them of their mobile devices, and ring bells every 45 minutes to send them on time-wasting walks down long corridors to another similar square space where they will sit in rows, facing the front, often without natural light or a view from a window. 


 On the whole, that is not how we think it is appropriate to treat adults in the workplace, so why do we inflict it on children? 


 This is not to say that there is no room for traditional learning anymore, or even that any one style of learning will suit all pupils.


In the end, though, the test is the impact on behaviour, motivation and achievement. And there is plenty of evidence that school design has a positive effect, particularly where new schools replace inadequate buildings.


 A review of all the existing studies into the impact of school design on pupils, conducted by Newcastle University, concluded that where inadequate buildings have been improved or replaced this has ‘a significant impact on health, student morale, and student performance’. 


 This has been the experience in Knowsley, where the council has taken the bold move of closing all of its 11 secondary schools, transferring them to 7 new Centres for Learning, using £150 million of government money.


The Halewood Centre for Learning, which opened this year,  is a futuristic, pastel-shaded building that has risen alongside the partly demolished old school next door. 


A 1200 pupil school could be daunting but this one is designed around several ‘homebases’. These are the dedicated areas for different year groups. Each is carpeted, with its own designated toilets and study rooms, as well as a common area for meeting friends and tutors.


 As the pupils told me it is ‘their area’, where other year groups cannot enter. It is their space, a fact particularly appreciated by the young Year 7s. 


 The building is carpeted throughout, constructed of absorbent materials to reduce noise levels (a common failing in traditional schools), and makes the use of natural light and pleasing vistas wherever possible.


 There are no long corridors to race down, no corners to hide in, no hemmed-in staircases. And, as students and teachers agree, behavior is much better than in the old building.


 But large-scale government-funded schemes of this kind may soon be a thing of the past. The recent gush of cash for new school buildings, which started  with the ‘Building Schools for the Future‘ programme in 2004, is likely to dry up in the current economic climate.


It has brought about a largely unreported, but dramatic, change in school design. But it has also brought charges that too much is being spent on showcase schools, particularly very expensive City Academies, sometimes costing over £25 million each. 


Well, that will change soon, whatever the outcome of the election, as the next government will not be able to maintain the level of school building investment which, incidentally, has been a life-saver for large parts of the construction industry.


However, that does not mean that there will have to be an end to innovative school design.  As several experts advised the conference, in future there will have to be greater emphasis on refurbishment of existing buildings or on converting offices, shops and factories into schools. 


This is the way that many of Sweden’s new ‘free schools’ - much admired by the Conservatives - have come about.


The Swedish school company, Kunskapsskolan, has opened 32 schools in recent years, all of them in converted offices and factories. Typically, one of its new schools for 50 pupils will cost between £1 and £1.5 million. 


This fits with a further finding from the Newcastle University report which says that there is little evidence of impact on student performance when improvement is made to a school that is already adequate. 


 So the lesson for the future is that good school design does matter. Schools should reflect the way young people learn today. They should - as one schools architect put it - be ‘humane’. 


 They should also be innovative and imaginative and should design in consultation with pupils as well as teachers.  But the days of the multimillion pound extravaganza school may well be over.

User Comments

Dr. Tom King - 01 Dec 2009

New School Design

It's imperative that a new school design enhances the success of the curriculum and student/teacher activities. Effective spaces are needed for planning, discussing, larger and smaller groups, online learning, tutorials and independent study. Check out some of this on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGLeGWLWNcQ

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