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Case study: Alder Grange school, Lancashire

We volunteered to be part of the Design Council's learning environments project because it was perfect for what we hoped to do: to identify design problems that hampered concentration and find ways to counter them. After an orientation visit from the Design Council team, we had a two-day "immersion", where we took apart all the strengths and weaknesses of our environment (a 20-year-old building) and decided on a number of key design issues to explore. Everyone was involved in this process and the students had an important role to play. This is vital if you're going to find design solutions that work.

We decided to tackle the toilets, which had no ventilation or daylight. We knew they were disliked, but we had no idea of the depth of hatred until we got the pupils talking about it. I've been able to use devolved capital formula to get a brand new facility, and work starts soon. Another thing highlighted was the amount of water the pupils were drinking. They hated the toilets so much they would choose not to drink rather than go there for water. This, of course, had a detrimental effect on concentration. Combined with the new toilet facilities, we reviewed arrangements for encouraging students to drink and provided more drinking fountains. This all tied in well with the healthy schools work we were doing.

We also tackled ambient noise. Although not all noises affected everyone in the same way, pupils and staff both said noise affected their concentration. So we've done away with school bells (almost completely) and made the doors in the corridor much quieter. Our building was designed for 350 pupils; there are now about 700. This means the public spaces are too small and movement around corridors can be a real headache. So we redesigned one of our two main corridors (leaving the other as before to act as a control for the experiment). We painted the walls and ceilings brilliant white, and doors that are not used by the children were also painted white. We've colour-coded the floors and the woodwork for navigation and ripped up the carpets, replacing them with marmoleum, a natural linoleum-like floor covering. The new corridor feels wider and lighter, and it has made people move around more purposefully.

The project is very much a work in progress. We're looking at furniture and we're experimenting with lighting. It can be grey in Lancashire from October until the spring and the ambient light can be oppressive. It affects concentration, and it's the time of year when standards can be difficult to maintain.

We're working with three classrooms, all for different subjects, facing different directions and with different design issues. One is a science lab: we have made the floor lighter to bounce back the light, introduced a departmental colour scheme and stripped away unnecessary decoration from the wall. It's had a major impact on the way the pupils feel about the room. In one of the maths classrooms we had a different problem. Because whiteboards are needed all the time we've painted the room in a themed colour to make the whiteboard stand out.

The most dramatic change has been in one of our modern languages rooms.

This was designed to be used for showers and changing rooms. Now we have strong red walls and we've introduced different lighting regimes. The room has been divided into four areas, each for a different function, such as speaking or listening, and the lighting can be controlled differently for each: task lighting, mood lighting or a combination.

We've had support from Lancashire LEA, but we've had to find the money by shuffling the revenue budget. We're sharing what we're learning with local primaries, and in the summer we're doing an LEA roadshow when we'll talk to 600 primaries and secondaries about the design process and the outcomes.

It's important to find out what the problems are and what we can do about them.

Iain Hulland is headteacher of Alder Grange community and technology school, Rawtenstall, Lancashire

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