Are you being served? Surprises in store as school sets up shop

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Call off the truant officer as pupils are invited into stores for the high street's educational refit

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.

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

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, who founded the technology research centre Ultralab and is sponsoring an academy in Portland, Dorset (see box), hopes the Rotherham school will open in the disused department store next year as "very little structural change" is needed.

"Shops like this one have got a big floor space, but you've also got little alcoves, and they are multifaceted so you can change the school's layout around," he said.

"You want a few small rooms for admin and so on, but shops have got those upstairs. You have also 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 US 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.

Professor Heppell hopes the Rotherham project will have a similar impact.

"Rotherham's a nice place, but when you walk through it, it's quite sad because whole streets are boarded up," he said. "When Burger King had gone there was a sign in the window saying 'Nothing of value left in these premises' - and I tried to imagine what had ever been there of value. The thought you might put learning in, and draw people back, is wonderful."

Such schemes may also benefit property companies such as Balfour Beatty, a partner in the Rotherham project.

"If you own the freehold of a shop, you are facing meltdown because it's boarded-up and it's going to start leaking, nobody wants to use it," Professor Heppell said. "But if you give it over to learning for, say, three years, it's going to stay warm, the roof isn't going to leak and people are going to walk down the street because it's an interesting place to come again. You will put the life back in, and your property keeps value on the balance sheet."

Many details have yet to be decided and the scheme's organisers have requested that the high-street chain involved is not named while negotiations are finalised. However, 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.

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."

A similar scheme is being developed for Colchester by the educational technology company Clever Atom, which hopes to put pupils and creative companies on a single site. The iconic Ark office building in Hammersmith, London, is also rumoured to be considered as a possible school location, although its letting agent said no such approach had yet been made.

Meanwhile, the William de Ferrers School in Essex began leasing two nearby shops, unused for more than two years, earlier this year. It put in three sixth-form classrooms and a small office, while it waited for a new sixth form to be built.


The academy that Professor Stephen Heppell (left) is establishing in Portland, Dorset, aims to take pupils from 0 to 21-plus.

The school, due to open in 2011 in a former quarry, will consist of a series of up to eight schools-within-schools, or "home-bases", each with around 120 pupils of all ages.

Higher education students may complete the foundation year, the first two years, or even a whole degree on site. Professor Heppell said he had been discussing the plan with a range of universities, including Bournemouth, Southampton and the University of the West of England.

A "fuzzy break" within the home-bases will separate younger and older pupils around the age of 11.

"If you are 14, you won't be sitting with an eight-year-old but you might have lunch with them, or help them to read," Professor Heppell said.

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