In one of the most extensive studies of its kind, Newcastle university researchers looked at more than 200 reports written over the past 90 years on the impact of learning environments on pupils.
They analysed studies into the effect of light, air quality, noise, colour, furniture and layout of buildings on pupils for a Design Council-commissioned report.
They concluded that only "adequate" facilities were necessary to improve performance, while "fancy classrooms" were a waste of money. Modern, open classrooms with lots of natural light seemed to have a positive effect on pupil attitudes. Colourful classrooms and those with innovative desk layout were unlikely to affect standards.
The researchers quoted one report which said: "Student achievement lags behind in shabby school buildings, but it does not show that student performance rises when facilities go from the equivalent of a Ford to a Ferrari - from decent buildings to those equipped with fancy classrooms, swimming pools, television production studios and the like."
Relatively cheap improvements to furniture, lighting or the school's colour scheme could bring benefits.
But the researchers said many well-established schools, housed in "old"
buildings which do not employ modern design ideas, did not perform any worse than neighbouring new schools.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Spending on school buildings does not guarantee success, but teachers have had to work in second-rate facilities for too long."
Meanwhile, the Department for Education and Skills believes that BSF offers "a unique opportunity to tackle a generation of under-investment in our schools".
"Good design, developed through consultation with teachers, pupils and the wider community is at the heart of this programme and will make sure that new or modernised buildings are equipped to meet the needs of the end users," he said.