A foretaste of future learning in the i-arena

12th April 2013 at 01:00

Classrooms in new schools are rarely radical. Breakout spaces and partition walls tend to be about as exciting as it gets. But as this week's cover story reveals, within the walls of one of the worst school buildings in Scotland - Campbeltown Grammar in Argyll and Bute - is a classroom fit for the future that gives teachers and students room to move and real options.

The space - open plan and roughly the size of three classrooms - allows teachers to lecture to large groups in the amphitheatre or use the smartboard in the more traditional classroom space. Students, meanwhile, can work in groups in study booths, present to their peers using the scribble boards dotted around the room, work individually or carry out research using the stash of laptops.

The so-called i-arena, created to inform the design of the new Campbeltown Grammar, due to be built in the next three or four years, is an ambitious and innovative space that helps teachers bring the same qualities to their lessons.

Staff were generally positive about the i-arena, TESS found - findings supported by those of an official evaluation. The main advantage is the amount and diversity of space, they say. This gives them choices that are simply not offered by the traditional classroom, where all activity is constrained by four immovable objects - the walls. The i-arena also lends itself to team teaching, multi-disciplinary learning and student-led learning - in other words, Curriculum for Excellence.

So why are schools still being built on the century-old model of long corridors and box-shaped classrooms?

Funding may be a barrier to experimental approaches. The Scottish government will fund only like-for-like replacements, covering half the cost of primaries and two-thirds of the cost of secondaries, although local authorities can, of course, top this up.

If Campbeltown decides to include i-arena spaces in its new schools, depute head Mike Casey is confident that the council will not have to increase the size of the build. The inclusion of these spaces will mean less traditional classroom space is needed, he reasons.

School design experts, meanwhile, warn against getting hung up on metrics. Decide what you want and then work out how you achieve it within budget, advises Sam Cassels of Architecture and Design Scotland.

The i-arena came in over budget at first, he points out. It is also worth remembering that Campbeltown Grammar was in a unique position, with the space to be experimental, and a council willing to be bold. The scheme was called Try Before You Buy and not every council will be able to do it. But Campbeltown's experience is there to be learned from and the education secretary, Michael Russell, has made it clear he believes innovation and new thinking are the key to moving Scotland's education system from good to great.

Emma Seith, TESS reporter, emma.seith@tess.co.uk.

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