Open space for open minds

Playing, fantasising, day-dreaming - all are "distractions" that most teachers would want their students to avoid.

But one international authority told a conference in Edinburgh last week that children up to the ages of six or seven must have the physical space in schools to allow their imaginations and brains to grow.

Matti Bergstrom, emeritus professor of neurophysiology at the Helsinki University, believes that the term "fantasy world" should not be a pejorative one since it enables the brain to develop.

Young children must have space for "chaos as well as order," Professor Bergstrom suggested. It could be empty space and it could be the outdoors, as is increasingly the case in the Nordic countries and in New Zealand.

The conference on school architecture and design, organised by Children in Scotland, challenged the Scottish Executive to be more adventurous in its approaches to school design.

The charity believes that the Executive's pound;2 billion school rebuilding programme, the emergence of integrated community schools and the increase in the number of pupils spending more time in after-school clubs provides an unrivalled opportunity to push design up the agenda.

"Opportunities to build new schools come along once in a lifetime," Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said. "Many of the school buildings our children are using today are over 100 years old and the schools we build now will be used by generations of children to come."

Biting criticism of the current approach came on the eve of the conference from Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council. Writing in a new publication, Designs on my learning, Mr Bloomer notes: "Design, materials and finish all speak of the value which society attaches to any building and the people who use it."

Mr Bloomer added: "So long as money pours into office atriums, hotel lobbies and airport lounges, while school costs are screwed down to the minimum, the message is clear. Education is unimportant and children are second-class citizens.

"More ingenious and forward-looking architecture can directly assist learning. Fundamentally, however, good architecture is important to schools because of the values it conveys."

Mark Dudek, an architect who specialises in education design, said that design was often compromised by the need to build cheap and build fast.

"For small people, read small budgets," Mr Dudek said.

The Lighthouse, Scotland's national architecture and design centre, which produced Designs on my learning, is increasingly focusing on school design and is urging authorities to involve the users more.

The Lighthouse is behind a three-year programme on "designs for learning"

which emphasises the need to bring in pupils as well as staff and parents.

"Bad design is expensive," Stuart MacDonald, its director, says. "It's not like bad television: you cannot switch it off. It continues to infect our lives."

Sue Rogers, of Plymouth University, said that for the very youngest children many buildings are "among the most impoverished places on the planet, and we are nowhere near getting it right".

One Scottish principal teacher in art and design brought the conference back to classroom realities when he pointed out that art and design is not a subject in primary schools, receives 55 minutes a week in his school in S1 and double that in S2.

"If pupils don't pick it up after that, they never come across it again,"

he said. "And these are the people who go on to become planners and political and community leaders who have made such a mess of our built environment."

The OECD, meanwhile, is urging member countries to devote 1 per cent of national wealth to early years education. Richard Yelland, head of the organisation's education building programme, pledged that the OECD would continue to promote good practice in high-quality school buildings, singling out the Cowgate under-fives centre in Edinburgh for special praise.

But Mr Yelland also said that schools must be "tools for learning, not monuments to aesthetics".

Building blocks

* "Now that I have trained as an architect and worked with actual schoolchildren, I am staggered at the level of awareness they have, particularly about the negative aspects of their existing built environment, and amazed at their grasp of the extent of the possibilities creatively conceived architecture can make, by simply exposing them to the art of the possible." - Henry McKeown, director JM Architects

* "I have learnt that you have to think very carefully about what you really want from a school - is it somewhere to have fun or is it somewhere to learn or can it be both and, if so, how? You have to be practical." - member of Dunblane High pupil council

* "As a father of two daughters who attended the local secondary, I'm fairly certain that any consultation on problems with schools will highlight toilets as an issue. Also I've visited several PPP (public private partnership) schools. However, in no school have I seen a design which is different in any way from the appearance we've adopted for the last 50 years. Basically, the toilets of today are the toilets of yesterday, with more modern fittings." - Richard Donald, PPP manager, Moray Council

* "It has changed the way I look at the landscape around me . . . we should do more stuff outside." - S2 pupil at Sir E Scott Secondary, Harris

* "Although the pupils have had no formal architectural education, they understood buildings. They recognised that certain places are designed because of their function and other spaces are designed to create particular atmospheres." - Lyndsey Dyer, JM Architects

* "When I grow up, I think I would enjoy a job like being an architect." - P6 pupil at Greenwards primary, Moray Source: Designs on my learning, published by the Lighthouse as the outcome of the second year of the three-year "Designs for Learning: 21st Century Schools" programme.

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