'Like a prison courtyard'

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Many teachers believe playgrounds in new schools do not have the necessary space or freedom for pupils to enjoy themselves. Henry Hepburn reports

Constant surveillance and a lack of private space make new school buildings resemble prisons, researchers have found.

An Edinburgh University study also showed pupils were falling ill amid "extreme" temperatures and staff were unhappy that their advice about building design was ignored.

The study compares two unnamed schools in the same city: one new school funded by a public-private partnership; the other, which opened in the 1930s, was extended in the 1960s and has been refurbished. Researchers Jane Brown and Mary Simpson found the design of recreational space was a big concern in the new school.

Most pupils spent their time out of classes in a large social area. There could be more than 1,000 people in this "very noisy" space, meaning all senior management staff had to be present.

There was also a small outside playground, enclosed by a high-perimeter fence and surveyed by a CCTV camera. One teacher described it as "like a prison courtyard". There were no "nooks or crannies or semi-private spaces", making it difficult for small groups of pupils or teachers to find a quiet spot.

The lack of "transitional spaces" was also a concern for teachers. No passageway existed, for example, to connect the large social area and the playground.

Dr Brown, who presented initial findings at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh last week, said there was no corridor to signal that a change in behaviour was expected as pupils made their way inside. Staff, therefore, found it difficult to manage behaviour when pupils came into class, because they had not settled down.

There were constant ventilation problems and "temperature extremes". Classrooms were "hot and stuffy" and there were reports of pupils sometimes feeling ill at the end of the day; staff had to ensure water was always close to hand.

Staff were concerned that consultation on design of the building had not been listened to. Corridors, for example, were narrower than they would have liked.

Dr Brown said the school had been "cheap" to build, at pound;20 million, and that design of schools was increasingly influenced by the corporate world.

"People who don't know anything about education are influencing some design now," she said.

The old school had a variety of types of spaces and plenty of semi-private areas for pupils and teachers. There was a choice of playgrounds, most teachers had a personal study base off their own classroom, and the atmosphere was more relaxed. "Pupils tended to describe their recreational time as just walking around, talking to friends and meeting different groups of pupils," Dr Brown said.

Both schools, however, had placed a lot of faith in CCTV. Most staff and pupils were positive about its use, and only a few were concerned about privacy. Girls in particular said CCTV made them feel safe. "There seems to be evidence that we are now experiencing a new era of surveillance in our schools," Dr Brown said.

She described the increasing use of CCTV as "at odds" with young people's rights to autonomy. CCTV in schools should be seen as "very different" from its use in airports and shopping centres, because children had no choice but to be in school.

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