In these dark January days, do you prefer to work in a warm and womb-like school or a yellow and sunny one? Neither, probably. When asked for their views, teachers tend to favour bright and white. But small children like strong primary colours, while older ones prefer warm and subtle.
So how do you create a colour scheme that provides an environment that is welcoming to all types and ages throughout the year, whatever the weather? And how do you work a miracle in the classroom, creating an effect that calms and stimulates?
New colour schemes are showing that it can be done, often using muted shades to provide a calm atmosphere, with small amounts of intense colour to focus the attention and contrasting colours to stimulate. Schools do not have to be seas of magnolia.
In public areas, of course, a calming rather than a stimulating effect is required. And the atmosphere is certainly tranquil as you enter Brentside Primary School in Ealing, London. Painted in varying shades of pink and lilac, the front hall also has a Buddha and the soothing sound of running water. In the front corridor leading away, however, begins the explosion of colour that characterises the rest of the school. It is yellow on one side and orange on the other.
Every classroom and hallway is different; nursery and reception classes are all the shades of the rainbow; and the toilets - pink and blue, with the cubicle doors covered in swans, trees, fish and sandcastles - must be the brightest in Britain.
Melody Moran, the headteacher, bridles at the description of the colours as "brilliant". "It's fresh but not too in your face," she says. "Some of the colours are pastel." After a childhood spent largely in care institutions, she was determined, on arriving at the shabby, magnolia-painted school five years ago, to transform it into a warm, non-institutional environment. She says pupils, parents and teachers love it - after they have got over the initial shock.
Teachers were involved in the choice, although Melody chose the basic colour for each classroom and then let teachers choose from four or five shades within it. (Mostly they went for the "safe" option, she says.) She took no advice from colour consultants, although she knows and respects the traditional and religious associations - lilac as the colour of the spirit, blue as the colour of healing. She avoided bright red, which is the colour of anger. But much of what Melody has done chimes with what colour psychologists and consultants would suggest, although they might not go for that stimulating orange and yellow corridor.
A great deal has been written about the psychology of colour, especially in America. But, as Mark Green, director of Fruition interiors of Torquay, remarks, much of it boils down to "warm colours (red, yellow, orange) stimulate and cool colours (blue, green) calm." Fruition has devised colour schemes for 18 schools, most in the South-west, including St Luke's Science and Sports College in Exeter.
The plans, largely based on the work of the American environmental designer Frank H Mahnke, use brighter colours for primary schools (attractive to small children because they are easier to identify, suggests Mark). They also use colour to unite and create a sense of identity for a key stage, classroom, year group or faculty.
Most striking of all, within classrooms the "teaching wall" is painted in a darker tone than the other three, to focus attention on the teacher and contrast with the whiteboard. "It's great to use intense colour," says Mark, "but the more intense the colour you use, the less of it you use."
At the Park Community School in a deprived part of Havant, Hampshire, science rooms are in pastel and darker blue, with window frames and architraves picked out in contrasting taupe (mole-colour), while humanities rooms are in shades of green, with contrasting claret.
Bob Carter, the deputy head, brought in Fruition to advise about colour after he read of the consultancy's success at St Luke's, a PFI project. Rather than just repainting Park Community in the usual off-white or magnolia, he and the headteacher wanted "a radical, Changing Rooms-style transformation," to reflect and build on the school's academic turnaround since it had come out of special measures eight years before.
Has it worked? Quite apart from being much more visually stimulating than the former sea of magnolia, he says the new look has strengthened the school's sense of community.
Anecdotal evidence from staff suggests that the mix of pastel and dark colours, and of colour contrasts within classrooms, has both calmed the pupils and helped to focus their attention - just the desired effect.
"Staff are now so used to the strong colours that they barely notice them," he says, although some were initially shocked by the clash of colours in their departments.
"I did go round and consult the teachers," he says. "If they said they fancied a particular colour and that was one of the colours suggested by the design consultants, I said okay. But the colours had to be different for each subject area. And if they didn't like the colours they got, I'm afraid it was tough luck."
Bob Carter also wanted to shake up some received ideas. "We had to get rid of the idea that certain colours equalled certain subjects." So technology, for instance, is pink. Clearly, a measure of dictatorship is necessary when designing colour schemes for schools. As Mark Green says: "If you get too many opinions, you get no decision." The consultancy recognises the importance of consulting teachers, but leaves that for the school to manage.
To Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology at the University of Lancaster, involving staff in changes in their working environment is vital to give them pride in it.
"Complaints about shabbiness or colour schemes are probably more to do with the management culture than the actual colours," he says, although he concedes that very dark colours and battleship grey are probably best avoided.
Nobody suggests that colour alone makes a better working environment. Lighting, for instance, is just as important.
"Colour is not a complete design solution - it's just a part of it," says Mark Green. "But it's quite often overlooked and dismissed by architects.
"You want a school to look like a co-ordinated and considered environment, as if it's been thought and cared about. Even the trays in the classroom should be of a matching colour. The variety should be in the children's work, to which the classroom should be a solid background."
WHAT DO COLOURS MEAN?
As you run through the spectrum, from redorangeyellow to greenblueviolet, colours generally change from stimulating to soothing. But the effect of each varies greatly with the tone and with the colour next to it.
Here are some common associations:
- Red: aggression, danger or warning.
- Orange: enthusiasm, vibrancy.
- Yellow: cheerful and inviting.
- Green: calm, natural, often used in hospital wards.
- Blue: colour of healing, inspires confidence.
- Purple: spiritual - regal and dignified when intense.
WHAT TEACHERS AND PUPILS WANT
"Adults and pupils often have conflicting views about what are appropriate colours for their schools," says Sharon Wright of the Creative Wit design consultancy. Sharon, who has worked closely with School Works, the commercial arm of the Government's school buildings watchdog, has found that teachers often opt for white walls, making the school look bright and clinical to avoid distractions. But, she says, secondary pupils "tend to be fairly sophisticated when they discuss colour, asking for natural, calm and warm colours". They find white makes the school feel too corporate and grown up. Pupils only like the natural look up to a point, however; they find unfinished or unplastered walls cold and institutional.
INFLUENTIAL ADVICE FROM AMERICA
Frank H Mahnke, in his book Color, Environment and Human Response, gives designers these guidelines for integrating colour in the educational environment. He recommends:
- A warm, bright colour scheme for pre-school and elementary school children, to compliment "their natural extroverted nature".
- Cool colours for secondary classrooms, for their ability to focus concentration.
- A wider colour range in hallways to give the school a distinctive personality.
- A pale or light green in libraries, "creating an effect that enhances quietness and concentration".
He points out that children in an environment quite devoid of colour tend to misbehave because they feel understimulated. The aim, he says, should be to avoid over-stimulation and under-stimulation.