Buildings can shape pupils

9th October 2009 at 01:00

I watched my old school being demolished the other day. The unimpressive buildings which I had used as a pupil, student teacher and, for a short time, as a teacher, have been reduced to piles of rubble. It was, in my opinion, long overdue. I even took photos.

Like many other schools, Clydebank High provided unworthy buildings for its inhabitants. They were one of the town's principal eyesores and offered tangible evidence of the consequence of poor planning and even poorer budgets. There was an old red-brick core building, a cheap extension and, for a long time, wooden huts.

As an unimpressive learner, I spent more than my fair share of time lining up in the rain for lessons in the cold, damp huts. The better classrooms, it was always accepted, were for the "better classes".

Many other pupils, of course, shared, and continue to share, a similar learning environment. As part of a recent secondment, I was able to visit schools throughout Scotland and can report that there are still some pretty appalling school buildings out there.

The new buildings which have opened during the past few years have, however, made a big difference. They provide more imaginative accommodation and, in some cases, beautifully-landscaped grounds for the pupils and staff to enjoy.

But the buildings, which include a new Clydebank High, also highlight, more starkly, the poor state of those which have yet to be replaced. Although the Education Secretary has announced more new school buildings in the near future, too many will remain as uninviting and uninspiring eyesores.

Unimaginative designs are compounded by the use of low-cost building materials and poor maintenance schedules. And I am referring to all types of schools: nurseries, primaries and secondaries. Is it not sad that we can't, at the least, build decent-looking nursery schools for our youngest pupils?

We still have nurseries in makeshift buildings with boarded-up windows and walls covered with graffiti. Where are the colourfully-painted walls and imaginative murals which signify the best nursery and primary school buildings in other countries?

"Cheap and brutal" sums up the architecture of our worst school buildings. In some cases, unusual planning decisions aggravate the misery of the school's appearance. I am thinking of the school I visited recently which has a brick bin facility, with several burnt-out bins, adjacent to its front entrance. You can learn a lot about a school by walking through the rubbish which has spilled out.

The quality of the school building, it is sometimes said, affects the quality of the education provided. "People shape their buildings and afterwards their buildings shape them," Winston Churchill once remarked.

Progressive thinking states that schools should be interesting and inspirational buildings. In the United States, Canada and elsewhere, buildings for education are being built to encourage creativity. Research shows better pupil behaviour, and higher levels of academic attainment, can be achieved by careful consideration of a school's appearance and structure.

In Toronto, George Brown College, named after the distinguished Alloa-born journalistpolitician, was built at the edge of Lake Ontario to provide a learning environment which is not only picturesque but conducive to creative thinking. The attractive buildings, and the action of moving water, are intended to help stimulate the brain and induce higher levels of creative thinking.

The new Clydebank High may be too far from the River Clyde to benefit from the effect of moving water, but at least it offers a pleasant learning environment for its pupils.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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