A strong foundation for learning

22nd July 2011 at 01:00
If your corridors and classrooms are drab and dilapidated, your pupils may not be brimming with inspiration, according to recent research. Chris Small reports on how new buildings can energise the school community

New school buildings can reduce negative behaviour, increase pupil self-esteem and encourage pupils to engage more with school, according to a new study.

The research, by environmental psychologist Edward Edgerton, from the University of the West of Scotland, found that new buildings are regarded by pupils and staff much more positively than older ones.

"These findings imply that the physical environment in which teaching and learning take place is important and needs to be considered as a key factor in the educational process," Dr Edgerton said.

Students' perceptions of their physical school environment are related to their "in-school" behaviour and the ways in which they use and are affected by their learning environment, the findings suggest.

The research, which also looked at academic achievement, self-esteem, motivation and negative behaviours, was presented at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in May, and is part of a project that is due to publish more detailed information in the coming months.

The findings underline the message of a 2009 study by the same research team which surveyed 840 S1 and S4 pupils at three Glasgow schools that had been through "major building work". These included one refurbished school, one refurbished school with an extension, and one new-build. Pupils in all three reported an improvement in how they felt about themselves. New schools had the biggest impact, while those which had been refurbished without an extension had the least.

The latest findings arrive as a new wave of school building projects takes shape in Scotland. The Scottish Futures Trust - the SNP's alternative to public-private partnership financing - was established to ensure value for money across public infrastructure investment. It is collaborating with all 32 local authorities to implement the Government's pound;1.25 billion Scotland's Schools for the Future programme, for a minimum of 55 schools.

The new pound;5 million Pumpherston and Uphall Station Community Primary in West Lothian is the first to be funded through the SFT, while a secondary schools pilot project with Lasswade High in Midlothian and Eastwood High in East Renfrewshire marks the first time two councils have worked together to jointly procure schools.

"We hold workshops with the councils to discuss how the objectives of the programme will be met, and talk to them about how they will manage and resource it," explains the SFT's associate director Grant Robertson.

"Consultation and engagement with pupils and staff is high up on the agenda, and part of our role is to share best practice." One of the most striking aspects of working with schools has been the "honesty, openness and imagination" of pupils, he adds.

But the reality of what pupils say about their school buildings can be sobering. A recent SFT consultation with pupils yielded the descriptions "tatty", "derelict", "unhygienic", "sad", "dirty", "dull", "cold" and even "haunted".

Recent examples of school design in Scotland confirm that the only way to transform pupils' and staff's attitudes about where they learn and teach is to listen to them and then act on their views.

Dalry Primary in North Ayrshire was hailed as having one of the most impressive and radical designs in Scotland. Opened in 2008, it is a prime example of how Curriculum for Excellence is giving momentum to changes in thinking on school design: in this case, bringing expressive arts to the forefront.

Dalry was designed through the eyes of an artist, with the aim that pupils' learning would be enhanced by the building around them. Each of the school's semi-open plan square classrooms has been created on a theme - including number, language, geography, science or colour - all aimed at stimulating the senses and prompting pupils to learn more.

"I think the children are learning respect for the building because we are giving them one in which they are respected," said headteacher Maureen Denningberg.

Dalry has been so successful because it is an example of a building that "is itself a tool for learning," says Sam Cassells, schools design adviser at Architecture and Design Scotland (ADS). "Design needs to respond to Curriculum for Excellence, not constrain it - and that's what a school like Dalry has done," he says.

ADS has been collaborating with Argyll and Bute Council on its replacement of Campbeltown Grammar, also part of the SFT programme.

Prior to the construction, a space has been identified within the current school in which innovative interior design ideas generated by pupils and staff are being tested.

"This will be a living and evolving exhibition space enabling experimentation with interior design settings in the context of the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence," a spokeswoman for ADS said. Lessons learnt from the project would inform the design of the new school and "illustrate new possibilities for the wider school estate in Scotland", she added.

A group of pupils from Campbeltown Grammar visited James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh last month to share their ideas about design.

Gillespie's is preparing for its own transformation, expecting to decant its S4-6 pupils to a temporary site during the 2012-13 academic year while S1-3 stay in existing accommodation on the old site. Pupils and staff will be reunited in a new school building, expected to be ready by 2015. Last year staff and pupils spent 12 weeks working with pedagogic designer Barry Best, considering how teaching might evolve and how a building could best support teachers in the future.

Some of the planned innovations include creating collaborative research spaces, flexible enough to incorporate ICT facilities, social areas and individual reading points. The move reflects CfE's emphasis on inter- disciplinary working and the changing role of the teacher. The process produced a strategic educational design brief, which includes plans for external classrooms, outside dining and nature trails in the school grounds.

Energy efficiency is a priority for designers of this new generation of schools. In Dunfermline a giant wind turbine looms from the garden of Carnegie Primary, a powerful signal of the school's environmental credentials. Carnegie, which opens to pupils next month, also boasts a combined heat and power plant to heat the building and provide electricity, rainwater harvesting technology and natural ventilation.

Harry Thorburn, managing director of Morgan Sindall, the company that designed and built the school at a cost of pound;9.2m, said its design had to weigh up various factors. "These have included working with the topography of the land and maximising natural light to incorporating sustainable features, and considering how the staff and children use the space," he said.

Inspiring physical environments such as Carnegie "can be a `third teacher', providing opportunities for children to explore their world themselves," said Children in Scotland chief executive Bronwen Cohen, at the launch last month of its publication Making Space.

In October 2010 a Making Space award, part of a year-long programme promoting innovation, creativity and sustainability in design for children and young people aged 0-18, was presented to Jason Brown, designer of Hyndland After-School Club in Glasgow.

An abundance of light and sense of playfulness was essential to the building's success, explained Mr Brown: "We ensured that there were no dimly lit spaces or `hiding corners' where bullying might be a possibility - everything was open plan. There are also no corridors, so staff can't stop children from running around."

The Hyndland building was produced at a relatively modest cost - pound;80,000 - a sign that, in an era of tightened budgets, there is an expectation that new school buildings do not have to be expensive to deliver what's needed for pupils and staff.

Value for money can be achieved through a "flexible and creative" approach to school spaces, says the SFT's Grant Robertson. "The assembly hall is a prime example of an adaptable space - how often do you use it? Can we come up with a design that allows it to be used as an assembly hall, a theatre, a dining hall, and make it more flexible space, thereby making it more efficient?"

Mr Robertson points to seating which can also be used as steps and as a viewing area for a stage: "suddenly that whole assembly hall area of the school can have a dual use".

What were previously thought to be mundane or functional spaces within schools are ripe with potential: overspill or breakout areas in corridors could have IT stations in them and be used by pupils as social areas, he adds.

Classrooms can also be adaptable, with the option to remove walls and extend learning into "spill-out" areas. "This is not to suggest you can't have typical classrooms, but if you do, let's try to make them the best typical classrooms they can be," he says.

The radical thinking and dialogue with local councils, teachers and pupils extends to how school toilets (see panel) and staffrooms are envisaged. "We're asking the question, why don't we relocate the staff base into a social space, perhaps with an area for private or confidential discussion? It would mean that teachers were on hand to interface with the kids, and have a much more informal discussion outside the classroom environment."

The proposal was being discussed with the education authorities now, but there had not been the opportunity to talk to teachers about it yet, Mr Robertson said.

"Some of the debate on school design is about the future of education itself," he says. "How do we make buildings more efficient but still create a very high-quality teaching and learning environment?"

As a new generation of schools in Scotland emerges, how do local authorities ensure they commission designs that succeed in encouraging children to engage in education - and make teachers feel positive and comfortable teaching?

West Dunbartonshire Council's department of educational services learnt some simple lessons from its consultation on redesigning the school toilets that could apply to all designers who win procurement contracts: "Do your research, be open-minded, and know that consultation means listening to the users", it concludes.

ADS's Sam Cassells says that focusing on the child at the heart of the school, the curriculum and the community "must be genuine, and more than just a tagline.

"We need to cleave to an education debate rather than a design one, because school buildings are part of education. They're part of how we view ourselves."


Capital expenditure on schools in Scotland (not including value of public- private partnershipnon-profit distributing contracts):

2005-06: pound;287m

2006-07: pound;386

2007-08: pound;429m

2008-09: pound;453m

2009-10: pound;405m

Typical build time for a new school: 18 months

Source: Scottish Government.


"Smelly", "dirty" and "vandalised" are the words most of us might associate with school toilets.

In the recent study by Edward Edgerton, of the University of the West of Scotland, into pupils' attitudes to school buildings, feedback showed that indoor sports facilities fared best, while toilets rated worst. Yet there are signs local authorities and designers are taking seriously the need to ensure toilets are on a par with the quality of the rest of the school building. In some schools they can even be a highlight.

Maureen Denningberg, headteacher at Dalry Primary in North Ayrshire, said the aesthetic of her school's toilets - patterned wallpaper, bright colours and curved walls - indicated respect for pupils, which they have reciprocated by keeping them in good condition.

Two years ago new toilets costing pound;198,000 were unveiled at Inverurie Academy in Aberdeenshire; vandalism has dwindled since. The revamp was spurred by a school survey which showed that some pupils at the school were avoiding going to the toilet altogether.

"When you talk to kids about school design, toilets are a huge priority," says the SFT's Grant Robertson. "If some pupils are not using the toilet during the school day what impact is that having on their learning - and on their health?"

Proposed new toilet designs are taking on board what pupils have said about privacy, eliminating urinals and introducing communal handwash points leading to separate cubicle areas for boys and girls.

The new thinking also reflects pupil feedback that toilets do not have to be utilitarian, but can be social spaces where they can get a break from learning.

More radical suggestions the SFT has heard - including a proposal that toilet facilities should be designed so they can be shared between staff and pupils - may be a harder sell.

West Dunbartonshire Council's recent consultation with pupils on the redesign of their school toilets at Clydebank High produced fascinating insights into the differences in attitudes between adults and children.

Pupil toilets were high on the agenda of pupils, parents, and staff. Their objectives were straightforward: no urinals; no smells; privacy; cleanliness; and no opportunity for bullying.

One potential contractor suggested two options: smaller facilities on each floor with conventional privacy lobbies; and open-plan facilities on each floor where the wash-hand area was open to the adjoining corridor.

The design company BAM was asked to present its final bid on the basis of a conventional layout but to make the design such that it could be changed to open plan at a later date.

BAM favoured an open-plan layout as used by a school in Bristol, but decided to open up the discussion to the wider school community.

Overall, adults, particularly women, were sceptical about the design. Pupils were generally enthusiastic, with the exception of 15 to 16-year- old girls. One parent said: "As a woman in her forties I would not want this for myself, but my 13-year-old daughter is in favour, so we should go with what the pupils want."

The decision was made to go with the open-plan design, and there are now at least three sets of male and female pupil toilets in each building.

There are full-height walls and doors to all cubicles, with particular care taken to ensure complete visual privacy, and a constant negative air pressure between toilets and the adjoining corridor to ensure that smells do not escape into the school.

There is CCTV coverage of all hand-washing areas and the outside of cubicle doors.

The outcomes for the school were extremely positive:

School staff have been won over by the ease of operation, absence of smells, and the positive pupil response;

Unobserved bullying does not happen;

Previously many pupils would not use the toilets during breaks but would ask instead to leave classes 10 minutes later. This has virtually stopped;

Staff of the opposite sex can move pupils out of the hand-washing areas;

Neither pupils nor staff would go back to the old design;

The authority has specified this design for Dumbarton Academy.

Source: West Dunbartonshire Council Department of Educational Service PPP Schools Consultation



The SFT undertook a review of the last 28 completed schools in Scotland, hearing from teachers and pupils about topics ranging from quality of daylight to summertime overheating to inappropriately-sized corridors. The results formed the document Lessons Learnt.

Student social areas - points to consider for contractors:

Overall benefits of social space for students who spend more and more time at school, particularly in the mornings and after school;

Stakeholder involvement to establish not only the desired accommodation but also the system of management which will be in place to supervise students.

Acceptance that social space can have a great effect on student satisfaction, behaviour, overall wellbeing and education;

Many senior students wish to be treated as adults, and allowed to take some ownership of their spaces;

Location of social spaces to ensure that they are not simply swallowed up within other accommodation;

Flexibility of area to ensure that students can use their social areas throughout the day without disturbing teaching spaces;

Greater passive supervision to allay fears that social spaces will become unmanageable;

Provision of social areas which students will actually wish to use and that meet the needs of students; and

Access to toilets and lockers adjacent, as well as opportunities to spill out into external student areas.

Extract from `Lessons Learnt'.

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