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11th December 2009 at 00:00

The educationist behind the technology research centre Ultralab is taking teaching to the high street.

The scheme is being led by Stephen Heppell, an educational technology pioneer and frequent visitor to Scotland, who believes shop floors are better suited to modern teaching approaches than traditional classrooms.

A disused department store in Rotherham is to be converted into a school as part of a growing trend to use recession-hit high-street shops for teaching.

A similar, separate project is being developed in Colchester, while a comprehensive in Essex has already taken over three unused shops to cope with its expanding sixth form.

Professor Heppell hopes the Rotherham school will open in the disused department store next year as "little structural change" is needed. "Shops like this have a big floor space, but you've also got little alcoves, and are multi-faceted so you can change the layout around," he said. "You want a few small rooms for admin and so on, but shops have those upstairs. You have got fabulous access for bringing stuff in and taking it out. And there's a wow factor to grab children's attention. They couldn't be better."

The project is partly inspired by similar education schemes in retail sites in other countries, including New Zealand, the United States and Thailand. The TK Park in Bangkok, built on the sixth floor of a shopping centre, helped attract so many parents and other visitors that neighbouring shops volunteered to pay for it themselves when the government suggested moving it.

Schemes also benefit property companies such as Balfour Beatty, a partner in the Rotherham project, since the continued use of the building for learning purposes would maintain its value. Pupils who use the school are likely to range in age up to degree level, and may be based part of the time in other mainstream schools or FE colleges.

Professor Heppell stressed that, without the "cells and bells" of a standard 20th-century school building, the teaching and learning would have to be different. "You can't just create a big space and do Dick Turpin - stand-and-deliver - teaching," he said. "Because then you are just trying to shout across a much bigger space."

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