All eyes are on the i-arena and a bold #163;75K project

12th April 2013 at 01:00
The Scottish government classed it as one of the worst school buildings in the country - but within the walls of Campbeltown Grammar is a state-of-the-art classroom that could change the way students are taught. Emma Seith reports

The building that houses Argyll and Bute's Campbeltown Grammar is classed as being in condition C or "showing major defects andor not operating adequately". And when it comes to its suitability for learning, it is rated condition D, which means it "does not support the delivery of services to children and communities".

In 2010, when the Scottish government announced that it would be helping to fund a new Campbeltown Grammar, it described the school as one of the worst two secondary school buildings in Scotland - the other being Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh, also due to be replaced.

Nevertheless, there is one advantage to the current Campbeltown Grammar - its size. The school has room for 884 students but under 500 on the roll, meaning that it is less than 60 per cent full.

Recently, this surfeit of space has been exploited and three under-used rooms - a science lab, an art room and a PSHE room - have been transformed into a potential classroom of the future.

The new space, called "the i-arena", can house a maximum of 90 students. It includes: a teaching wall complete with smartboard; swing-out teachers' station and storage, including space to house 30 laptops; an amphitheatre with whiteboard; study booths where smaller groups of students can work together; a formal learning space with tables and chairs; a space for informal learning with low tables and brightly coloured stools; and a chill-out area where students can lounge on bean bags.

Eventually, when the new Campbeltown Grammar is built in three or four years' time, entire year groups could be taught for the bulk of the week in spaces inspired by the i-arena, with teachers coming to them to deliver lessons, depute head Mike Casey says.

"In a few years' time, there are going to be just 60 to 65 pupils in S1 at this school," he explains. "The i-arena could be their classroom, where they are taught a broad general education by a team of teachers. They would have to leave it to go to PE or technical or science, but the broad general education in terms of literacy, numeracy and languages could be taught in the i-arena. A move in that direction is under discussion in the school."

The "try before you buy" project led to Argyll and Bute Council investing #163;75,000 in a building that it knew it would soon demolish. But it has been money well spent, argues Sam Cassels, Architecture and Design Scotland's design adviser for schools.

"The project has had a really significant impact on the way they (staff and pupils) are planning and thinking about the new school and schools from all over the country want to know about the way they are doing it," he says.

Supported by A+DS, Mr Casey has been the driving force behind the creation of the i-arena. He became interested in school design when he was seconded in the mid-1980s to work on the introduction of Standard grade geography, a post that led to his visiting 38 schools. Buildings either helped or hindered learning, he realised.

"As soon as you walk in the door of a school, you sense the atmosphere, but you also begin to understand that different layouts affect the way it operates and the extent to which it aids learning," he says.

This interest led to Mr Casey being seconded again, this time to write the educational specification for 11 schools built in Argyll and Bute in the 1990s. And in January this year he began a three-year secondment in which he was asked to carry out the same task for the latest batch of new schools to be built in the authority, including Campbeltown Grammar.

"You don't design the building - you give the specification for the output of the building. But I can write a section to try to steer the designers in the direction of putting in an i-arena-type space," he explains.

The current i-arena is always booked, say Campbeltown Grammar staff.

Involving students and staff in the design of the space has been key to its success, Mr Cassels believes. The student council and five staff volunteers were consulted extensively.

"They have ended up with a space that is able to cope with more students, doing more things, more of the time," he says.

S2 students have used the i-arena for their carbon diaries cross-curricular project, involving English, geography and science. In S3, students are given the task of planning a trip to France and then presenting their itinerary to their peers - a piece of work that is now also done in the i-arena.

Meanwhile, there are plans for the geography and maths departments to use the space to work together to allow S1 students to carry out their own census. In May, health professionals will run a two-day course on sexual awareness for S3 in the i-arena and shortly afterwards it will be used by P7 children during transition week.

The students will spend the first two days following the normal timetable and then the i-arena will become their base, with a presentation for parents being delivered in it at the end of the week.

While demand for the i-arena has been high, there has been a "mixed" reaction to it from staff, Mr Casey explains.

The space cannot cater for the practical side of subjects such as science, home economics or technical, and there are those who simply prefer "the traditional box-shaped classroom", he says.

Nonetheless, an evaluation of the i-arena carried out two months after it opened found responses to be "overwhelmingly positive". More than 80 per cent of staff and students perceived the space to have had "a considerable, positive impact upon learning" (see panel).

Geography teacher Matthew Osborne feels that staff are generally positive about the space, as is he.

When it comes to running his own classroom, he is a traditionalist, he says, occasionally dabbling with seating students in groups, but always reverting to placing desks in rows.

The i-arena certainly takes a bit of getting used to, he says. But the adjustment did not take him long, given that every S3 geography class is held in the space.

"After a couple of weeks, you have been there eight times and so it becomes second nature," Mr Osborne says.

The sheer amount of space, with the freedom and options it brings, is the main advantage of the i-arena, he says.

Mr Osborne tends to begin lessons in the amphitheatre to get the class settled and introduce the topic.

"In the amphitheatre, unlike a traditional classroom, there are not obstructions in front of you," he says. "The children tend to be really good, they stay still and they do listen, but if there is any talking, you can really clamp down on it because they are literally right in front of you and in some cases you are in among them."

The students can then move from the amphitheatre into the other spaces to work.

"I tend not to be too prescriptive and give them the freedom to choose where they want to work," Mr Osborne adds.

The amount and diversity of space within the i-arena is cited in the evaluation as the main advantage.

"In most schools, students sit in rows of single or double desks or in wee groups. But they are confined by four walls and it's difficult to find the space to move without rearranging furniture," Mr Casey says.

Students report that distractions are fewer in the i-arena because anyone being disruptive can be seated far enough away so as not to disturb the rest. But they also say it can be hard to concentrate, depending on which other classes are using the space.

A similar downside is highlighted by Mr Osborne. "Because the space is big, there's the temptation to have another class using it at the same time and that's a bit of a nightmare. Inevitably, you are doing teacher talk while they are on task and it's a bit noisy. It could work, but you would need to be in sync."

Another issue is the management of resources, he says. The space is well stocked with laptops and stationery, but it is unclear who should take responsibility for maintaining supplies.

"It's basically just making sure the space is tidy and things are put away properly. There's a bit of a void with that at the moment."

History teacher George Baxter, meanwhile, suspects the i-arena is sometimes just used for the sake of it.

"I like the idea, but we need to think a bit more about how we use it," he says. "At the moment, lessons are being done in there that could easily be done in classrooms."

He also dislikes the nooks and crannies where students can hide away. If the new school adopts the i-arena model, these problems will be ironed out, he predicts - one of the advantages of "trying before you buy".

The i-arena has given staff and pupils an early experience of the learning spaces and learning choices the new school can afford, says Catriona Hood, who took over as headteacher at the school just a few months ago.

"On class visits to the i-arena, I value watching young people working in a variety of learning contexts - whole class, small group or individually," she says.

"It is also good to see various classes and groups which might not normally be together now collaborating across learning."

Cleverly timetabled, two i-arena spaces may suffice in the new school, suggests Mr Casey. But one thing any future incarnation of the i-arena will definitely have is more plug sockets.

The bulk of these went when the internal walls were brought down to turn the three original classrooms into one space, and new plug points cannot be fitted to external walls because of water ingress.

In terms of their building, the future is bound to be brighter for Campbeltown Grammar, but there is also a chance it could be revolutionary.


In June 2009, the Scottish government announced #163;800 million of funding to support local authorities in taking forward a #163;1.25 billion programme for the rebuilding or refurbishment of approximately 55 primary and secondary schools through to 2017-18.

The Scottish Futures Trust manages the Scottish government's Scotland's Schools for the Future programme to help local authorities achieve best value for money. To date, six schools have been completed and nine are currently being built. The next 30 schools to be built were announced last year.

According to Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland, 2012:

- over the past five financial years (2007-08 to 2011-12). a total of 403 Scottish schools have been rebuilt or substantially refurbished;

- the proportion of schools in good or satisfactory condition has increased from 61 per cent in April 2007 to 82 per cent in April 2012;

- the proportion of schools in bad or poor condition has fallen over the same period from 36 per cent to 18 per cent.


There has been an "overwhelmingly positive" response to a state-of-the-art classroom opened at Campbeltown Grammar, according to an evaluation carried out two months after it opened.

More than 80 per cent of staff and students perceived the space - called the i-arena - to have had "a considerable, positive impact upon learning", says the research carried out by Performance Consultancy, a firm specialising in evidence-based design.

The i-arena, created out of three classrooms and the corridor that separated them, includes: a smartboard, a swing-out teachers' station and storage; space for 30 laptops; an amphitheatre with whiteboard; study booths; a formal learning space with tables and chairs; a space for informal learning with low tables and coloured stools; and a chill-out area where students can relax on bean bags.

Overall, staff and students are happy with all aspects of the space, which can accommodate up to 90 students. While students are particularly appreciative of the chill-out space and study booths, staff are keener on the IT and the clever storage, says the evaluation. The bean bags were impractical and distracting for students, teachers felt.

Both groups, however, rate the easy access to laptops highly and are enthusiastic about the amphitheatre and the informal and formal group-working spaces.

The amount and diversity of space within the i-arena is cited as its main advantage. This allows people to "select the most appropriate area, furniture and equipment for different types of activity", the report says.

Staff feel that the space enables them to give students much greater autonomy in their learning. They are able to work in groups or alone around the space, using the scribble boards to present their ideas.

In terms of Curriculum for Excellence, the space supports team teaching, multi-disciplinary learning and student-led learning, the evaluation says.

"Due to the amount of space and ability to separate students, they are not as distracted by others," the report continues.

But students say that it can be harder to concentrate, depending on who else is using the space.

According to the evaluation, the spaces used most by classes are the amphitheatre, study booths and formal learning area. The informal furniture, including stools, low tables and bean bags, are used more frequently by older students - individually or in small groups.

Some issues with the space include tables in the informal group-working space being too low to work at comfortably; the storage in the teaching wall not being big enough for some standard resources such as A3 paper; and staff finding it hard to use the so-called "touchdown space" that contains just four PCs.

One of the main criticisms from students is that they are unable to access the space outside lessons.

S6 student Martin Mccallum says: "I liked the idea of the study booths, but I've not got a stand-out favourite part. My favourite bit about it is the comfort of the room itself - it's bright, colourful and relaxing."

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