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Des Res schools are best for learning

Only when school buildings become run down is action taken. Neil Munro reports on how design and use of space can enhance pupils' education.A school's physical attractiveness, even down to the quality of its fixtures and fittings, can say as much about its approach to learning as anything on the teaching programme.

That is the central message of a report out this week, which attempts to demonstrate how schools should adapt their spaces - external and internal - to the demands of A Curriculum for Excellence.

Maggi Allan, who chairs the programme board for the new curriculum, writes in the report, Building Excellence, that design and use of space are key factors in supporting the curriculum. "However, if the curriculum is conceived of as the totality of the experiences planned for young people, other factors, such as how decisions are made about the use of space, the tone and register of the signage, the quality of fixed fittings and furniture and the extent of learner access to facilities, all need to be taken into consideration."

Mrs Allan, the former director of education in South Lanarkshire, says schools must look and feel as if they are serious about being an active learning environment and giving priority to creating "a community of successful learners".

This would be evident, for example, in whether or not study facilities were provided for teachers and pupils.

She also urges schools to involve pupils in discussions about their surroundings, a move she believes will foster the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence by engaging young people in activities, such as negotiation and decision-making, outside the classroom.

Addressing a conference on Wednesday to discuss the new report, Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, endorsed the importance of consulting pupils on school building and design, as well as teachers and the wider community.

The SNP Government is continuing the multi-million pound programme it inherited of modernising schools through public-private partnerships, after which it plans to replace PPP with an alternative approach. Either way, it believes the time is ripe to capitalise on creative ways of redesigning schools.

The report says, however, that A Curriculum for Excellence does not demand radically different design, "but it does offer the opportunity to think about how spaces are perceived and whether they are being used effectively".

Ms Hyslop said the attractiveness of "less obvious" spaces, such as school grounds, corridors and social spaces was just as important for learning and teaching as classrooms and libraries.

She found support from Alastair Seaman, the programme manager of the Grounds for Learning initiative, who wrote in the Building Excellence report that the "huge significance" of school grounds was often overlooked. Yet, 63 per cent of the school estate was land rather than buildings, and pupils spent up to 25 per cent of their time in the school grounds.

Mr Seaman cited the Numeracy Across the Curriculum paper which gave two examples of activities which were each set in the school grounds - a garden and a sports day. "The direction of Scottish educational policy means that well-designed and used grounds will become more important than ever," he said.

Calum McKenzie, an architect with Moray Council, suggested in the report that 90 per cent of a school should be on one level, "allowing manipulation of light and air quality, factors critical to successful learning".

Kenn Fisher, an educational planner in Australia, said "next generation learning environments" would have to take account of a wide range of factors because of new demands from teaching and learning.

He added: "Space and place have tended to take the back seat and only really come to the fore when school facilities become so run down or dysfunctional that action has to be taken."

Question time

Does the design of the school building and grounds encourage integration with the local community?

How is the school's ethos reflected in its buildings and the quality of materials used?

What involvement do students and teachers have in decisions on design and maintenance?

Are the internal spaces appropriately proportioned and flexible to allow for changes in layout?

Are spaces organised to make connections between different areas and types of learning, so allowing project and group working?

Do the buildings and grounds allow pupils to develop their organisational skills, creativity, teamwork and the ability to apply their learning?

Are there spaces and facilities for students to display their work?

Do the buildings and grounds provide opportunities for music, drama and sport?

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