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Lab experiment wins approval

The design of Balfron High's science block demonstates how public-private association can work. Douglas Blane reports.

Debates about the public-private partnerships that are modernising many of Scotland's schools tend to focus on principle rather than the variety of practices that are emerging. Some of these look set to deliver huge educational benefits, while others are so flawed that many teachers would rather stay where they are - leaks, draughts and crumbling stonework notwithstanding.

Science pupils in the new schools throughout Glasgow have to turn their backs on teachers to carry out experiments, which is a design fault any science teacher could have pointed out to the architects. But the teachers say they were not consulted.

In the Stirling village of Balfron they tell a different story. Not only were staff fully involved in the planning stages of the new high school, but the depute head was co-opted full-time to the project, ensuring that the teachers' voices were heard throughout the design and build.

"What happened first was that headteacher Jim Fleming and I got together with Stirling education authority to devise a curriculum model," says depute head Sandy Kelso. "We started from what was going to be taught and designed the building around how we wanted to teach it. We came up with this buttercup diagram for most subjects, with classrooms as petals around a large central space."

Important aspects of the model, which regards the curriculum as a coherent whole rather than a set of disparate parts, are flexibility, adequate space and access to information and communications technology. Classrooms for related subjects are clustered around an open area where pupils - lightly supervised through wide classroom doors - can work on projects, research, computer activities and support for learning.

"Once we had decided on all this," says Mr Kelso, "the architect went away and put it on paper. Then she passed the drawings to the teachers to examine in detail."

The teachers' thoughts were canvassed at departmental meetings, then heads of department conveyed them to Mr Kelso, who in turn explained the alterations the teachers wanted to the architects. This was repeated many times.

Six months after the school opened last autumn, as the principal teachers of science talk about their involvement in this lengthy process, their surprise and pleasure that the whole thing has worked is still evident.

"We were consulted time and again," says Roy Pearson, principal teacher of physics. "We were feeding our thoughts to Sandy and things were actually changing. Big things, like getting the science departments all on one floor, locating stores and technicians centrally, providing separate areas in the labs for pupils to write and to do experiments. And detailed stuff as well, like where we wanted the sockets, gas taps, sinks and even coat racks to go."

No attempt was made to impose an off-the-peg solution on individual departments in the school and this extended even to the separate sciences. Chemistry, in particular, asked for and got a number of alterations to the basic laboratory layout.

"We also wanted carpets on every floor," explains chemistry principal teacher Brian Turner. "The architects weren't keen to do that in chemistry labs, but we persuaded them."

He talks of the pleasure of teaching science in a space that is not only ample but has been designed to meet the learning and teaching needs of the subject. At Balfron High, each pupil station has its own cupboard space around the walls for storage of basic equipment. such as tripods, Bunsen burners and test tubes, and children's bags, so safety is enhanced.

"Education isn't just about exam results," says Mr Turner. "It's also about the quality of what the pupils do on a daily basis.

"Our youngsters have begun to drop in at lunchtime and after school to use the computers, books and tables in the communal space for their own research and meetings.

"And I've got my first-year pupils looking after the stations and making sure all the equipment is there. The young ones like that - it gives them a feeling of ownership and responsibility."

With its atrium, wide corridors and airy classrooms, Balfron High conveys a buoyant impression of light and space. This is enhanced in the science department by the spectacular views through its top-floor windows.

"The art teachers would have loved this," says Mr Kelso, looking towards the snow-sprinkled Campsie Fells, "but putting them here would have meant separating the sciences. And clustering those together was a key component of our curriculum model."

Besides an inability to satisfy all the aspirations of every department, there seems to be only one drawback to Balfron's new school. While improving the quality of learning and teaching, and boosting the morale of teachers and pupils, this superb resource casts the deficiencies of our educational system into sharper relief.

"Unlike many of my colleagues I don't agree that this is great," says Jim Shields, the principal teacher of biology. "This is the baseline, the starting point. I don't accept we are lucky. What I do accept is that a lot of other schools are a national disgrace.

"At Balfron we've got the right space for teaching the sciences. I now need pound;50,000 to equip my labs. Biotechnology is supposed to be Scotland's big hope for the future. You can't teach biotechnology with instruments and equipment that are 40 years out of date."

WHAT BALFRON HIGH ASKED FOR

* All the science subjects clustered together

* Science labs that are 90 square metres in area

* Separate practical and written work areas in each lab

* Two large communal learning and teaching areas

* Central technicians' room and stores

* Two tutorial rooms

* Large staff base

* Blackout capability in all labs

* Carpet floor covering throughout labs and open areas

* Quality fittings and work surfaces

* Ten networked ICT points in each lab, 20 in the open areas

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