Architects of their own attainment

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Architects must listen to teachers and pupils when designing schools, says Stephen Heppell who sets out what he'd like the school of 2025 to look like

Twenty years may not seem like a long time, but think about the changes we have seen in schools since 1985. There was no national curriculum, literacy and numeracy hours or Sats tests, and16-year-olds still sat O-levels. Computers in classrooms were relatively rare, and so were teaching assistants. Only about 14 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education.

But we will see more and bigger changes in schools over the next 20 years.

Of course, there have been dramatic shifts in pedagogy and school organisation in the past: the baby boom left schools desperately trying to process too many children. This resulted in a mass production-style of learning, with children in year groups, desks in rows and timetables driven by bells, reminiscent of post-war factories and offices. With so many children in the system, wasting the potential of a few didn't seem to matter. However, today children are relatively scarce and everyone sees that we can't afford to waste any of them. As a result, we are now in the age of "Every Child Matters", and of personalised learning.

In the workplace, the most cherished capabilities have become creativity, ingenuity, collaboration and thinking skills, built on a bedrock of numeracy and literacy. It is obvious that a school engineered for 1985 will not necessarily deliver what will be needed in 2025.

Fortunately, the Government has instigated a huge programme of school renewal, Building Schools for the Future. In 2005-06, more than pound;5 billion will be invested in new and revamped schools; this represents a serious commitment to the learning environment. But will the new schools meet the new learning needs of the 21st century, or just sharpen up old-fashioned designs?

Encouragingly, a great deal is known about how to build innovative designs for learning. A Department for Education and Skills programme to create a dozen classrooms of tomorrow led to some extraordinarily creative structures. A subsequent programme from the department challenged some of our most creative architects to develop exemplary school designs; their diversity has left a legacy of bright ideas for others to explore. None of these is intended as off-the - shelf solutions, but they add up to a stimulating and original portfolio.

So what certainties have emerged for schools to hang onto during all this experimentation and change? For one, virtually everyone agrees that the only possible approach to new design, whether it's a classroom or a whole school, is to involve the learners and teachers. A mass of research confirms the importance of this essential step and the impact it subsequently has on standards. Children and teachers have unique insights to offer architects, but their debate and reflection about how to develop their learning space also triggers school change in its own right. Asking the school's council or forming a staff subcommittee isn't enough: everyone needs to have a voice.

New technology alters what is possible as well as what is needed. Small schools, which seemed so financially unfashionable last century, can now use technology to link up with other institutions and experts while continuing to offer that special small-school atmosphere. Mixed-age classes are becoming increasingly normal. Younger pupils look up to older ones as role models, while the older children enhance their own understanding and esteem by supporting the younger ones - and that, in turn, means designing for mixed ages.

The school day is stretching too. Breakfast clubs, after-school activities and even summer schools push the premises to a much fuller use. But a breakfast club takes up a lot less space than a full lunchtime and no one wants the whole site unlocked for just a few earlycomers. That means very agile space design is needed.

Media-rich classrooms full of team chatter with a variety of adults and varying group sizes does suit open-plan design. That same design failed in the 1970s because learning then was a much quieter activity with just one teacher per class. The rehabilitation of open-plan construction illustrates the substantial changes in learners' needs between the last century and this one.

It isn't all good news, though. The wonderful opportunity of so much new building needs a mechanism for swapping ideas and sharing what worked, and what didn't. A great idea tested in Cornwall should be immediately available to inform the debate in Cheshire.

With so much building taking place so rapidly, there isn't time for ideas to filter through the traditional channels of conversations and conferences. That same mechanism will need to vacuum up the great ideas being explored all over the world too.

New schools need ingenuity and fresh thinking in their design if they are to harbour ingenuity and fresh thinking in their learners.

Professor Stephen Heppell is founder of Ultralab, a learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University Details of research findings on:

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