Open and shut case

Does classroom layout affect children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Janet Boyle looks at the research and visits a school which has it own theories.

Children who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder do poorly in open-plan classrooms, according to a leading professor of child and adolescent psychiatry. Professor John Pearce, of Nottingham University, believes that the classrooms can provide an undisciplined and disorderly environment for the children. His observations come, he says, from treating an increasing number of children with ADHD. About two per cent of children now suffer from the condition.

Professor Pearce points to a fall in education standards in comparison with other countries which use more formal teaching practices such as closed classrooms. "I am seeing a number of children with ADHD who are not thriving because they are being taught in open-plan classrooms," he says. "These children are not mature enough to learn in such an environment and would benefit from more external control. By that, I mean four walls. Research in the States has concluded that hyperactive children do worse in open-plan classrooms."

Professor Pearce believes it is important not to criticise teachers. "They have a difficult enough job, and have to work within the constraints of the system. A really good teacher will overcome all the problems which the average class presents, but as in every profession, there is a spectrum of ability among teachers."

About 24 per cent of schools in the north west of Glasgow are open or semi-open plan. Angela MacMillan is headteacher at Oakgrove primary, which was recently praised in an Inspectorate report. She disputes Professor Pearce's findings and says that after working for 13 years in closed bases and the same in open plan, she prefers the latter.

The HMI report praised her school for successful integration of children with learning difficulties and special needs. Mrs MacMillan suggests that pupils are not distracted by noise from a neighbouring class within open plan, but by more immediate movement around them, which is inevitable in both open and closed classrooms.

"Children can acquire the discipline to work within open plan by working on a tutorial basis with their teacher. They are each given a set amount of work and if they do not manage to achieve this, then their teacher will ask why and help them. Any problems, obvious or less obvious, will be uncovered and the child will be helped to overcome them.

"Aberrant behaviour from pupils is responded to by giving that child time out to talk about its problems. He or she is taken off to a quiet area like our community room or my office where we help the child spot the trigger that leads to destructive behaviour. This helps them to understand that unsocial behaviour is not beneficial to them or the class."

Mrs MacMillan says that Oakgrove's strengths lie in its relationships with the community. "We foster a culture of sharing within the school and beyond, and open plan allows this. A parent can walk into the school to collect the child and see for themselves their child's education."

Oakgrove is situated within the inner city with a rich social and ethnic mix, including refugee Bosnian children who attended the school until recently. "The HMI report praised us for being a successful part of the community as well as achieving a good integration of children with learning difficulties and special needs," says Mrs MacMillan. "None of this would be possible without a fully committed staff and parents."

David Ferguson, a primary adviser with Glasgow City education department, argues that reading ages do not suffer within open-plan settings. "We have evidence to suggest that our reading ages are good. What we also benefit from in open plan is the children's ability to get on with each other. It is vital that they learn to live and work with each other."

However, David Ferguson concedes that there are teachers within the primary sector who would never opt to teach in open plan schools, mainly because they may feel embarrassed at other teachers hearing them. "As a class teacher, I preferred to shut the door in a closed-plan school and get on with it, and I can understand why some teachers feel like that. It takes a certain type of person to work within open plan, but it can work extremely successfully. Oakgrove is testament to that. Open-plan schools only work when the team get on with each other."

David Ferguson believes that while open-plan works in the primary sector of education - up to the age of 12, it does not operate well in secondary schools. "Whitehill Secondary in Glasgow's East End was built as an open plan school, " he says, "but within two years it reverted to the traditional closed class and the reason given is that discipline was a problem. The way children are taught in secondary schools is not conducive to delivering the curriculum in open plan."

David Ferguson believes that it also failed because many of the pupils had not experienced open plan classes in primary school.

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