Building up a dialogue with the architects

24th August 2012 at 01:00
Input from teachers and pupils to the design of their learning environment is a vital part of Curriculum for Excellence, finds Jackie Cosh

The needs and requirements of a school in the Western Isles are different from one in the Borders. The weather is different for a start, as is the environment, but learning styles differ too. School designs do not need to be bespoke - instead, what is emerging are families of schools.

That is the view of Sam Cassels, head of the schools programme at Architecture and Design Scotland, which has been working with primaries and secondaries across the country to create effective learning spaces. Some were on display recently at an exhibition at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, which looked at a range of issues impacting on learning spaces. It showcased examples of new school designs which deliver different responses to their environment and surroundings.

Local authorities are choosing to develop their own family of schools, reflecting their local preferences and building on common design approaches informed by their experiences. Other local schools influence this to an extent, but so - most importantly - do the teachers and pupils.

"Our job is not to tell people how to design. Our job is to help teachers and learners do what they do in the best way possible. It is not about being far-edged and radical," says Mr Cassels.

One instance was Campbeltown High, where a new school is due to be opened in 2015. Architecture and Design Scotland worked with staff and pupils in a "try before you buy" exercise.

In order to get ideas for the design of the new school, but also to make best use of the current building, the walls of three classrooms were knocked down and a consultation with pupils and teachers began on how best to use that space.

"We talked about different activities they want to do," explains Ali Marr, participation adviser at Architecture and Design Scotland. "The pupils said they wanted to be comfortable, so they came up with ideas to solve that. They wanted somewhere to come together in order to focus. Also popular was having somewhere they could study on their own."

"It is interesting, talking with young people, how important the space in between classrooms is," says Mr Cassels. "They want more of it and not just because it is nice to get out of the classroom. Their experience of school starts on approach. Everyone now mentions outdoor learning.

"Time between classrooms - downtime, time in the dining room, it is all part of the continuum," he explains. "As part of Curriculum for Excellence it should be. A lot of learning takes place in that area, particularly in secondary school. You don't say, `The bell's gone, so stop learning.' Life is not divided up into 45-minute chunks."

James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh was in a similar position, awaiting a new build, but the consultation there centred on a decant to a Victorian building at Darroch.

"The pupils there started off saying `there is nothing about our school that we like'. They assume the architect will know what is good and that the good points will come with them," says Ms Marr.

"We looked online, and talked about how they would feel and the different learning styles and the type of space needed. The groups of people were very diverse, not just the top third. We asked for different types of learners and had different teachers - from drama, science, additional support for learning, the headteacher. The deal is that nobody has more say than others."

Some of the ideas were similar to those in Campbeltown - individual study booths, an amphitheatre, beanbags, but more unique was the request for a school goat.

"Yes, the goat was lovely as an aside, and was a thing that made everyone laugh but it really helped towards the workshop because everyone really got together and talking. The pupils are very aware that a school initially has to be a place of learning and teaching," says deputy headteacher Janis Croll.

Open-plan areas are popular, with study booths as well as less formal areas and spaces where large groups can come together. But Mr Cassels says the consultation process should not be about making up a shopping list. "This is not a driver to go open-plan. It is very pragmatic. It is about thinking, `What are you trying to achieve?' The process is very important so that kids have ownership. If it doesn't come from them, it isn't relevant to them.

"We were surprised at the clarity coming from the kids on what their priorities are. When you talk with them, you get a clear idea of what they want. They had some very grown-up, articulate ideas," he says.

"Curriculum for Excellence is about the learner being at the heart of the community. We try to put the learner at the heart of the school."


At Campbeltown High, the new open-plan area has allowed for more emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. One of the first groups to use it was the S2 pupils who worked on a topic on carbon diaries there, involving the geography, English, and science departments. The science department has also begun to use the IT facilities in the room for research and the room is often used to gather and work with whole-year groups.

Even when the room is occupied, S6 pupils are encouraged to use it for private study, and this has been popular. Previously, with no S6 common room in the school, sixth-year pupils used the school canteen during free periods.

"Generally, what we have found is that student-led learning has increased," says Mike Casey, acting headteacher. "There is more active learning by students within the area. There is a much more positive feel about learning. We are starting to see interdisciplinary learning take a foothold within the curriculum."

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