Buildings with an emphasis on learning

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Letter from Norway:

John Stodter constructs a few Scandinavian lessons on school buildings

Imagine a secondary school where there are no corridors. Class sizes are around 15 and two of these classes form a group whose programme for learning is planned and taught by four teachers who cover all the subjects in the curriculum.

School starts at eight and finishes at two and activities before and after school are available if parents require it (they pay a small sum for this).

Every group has its own entrance to the school (with individual spaces for coats, outside shoes and clothes) which leads into a classroom base.

Around the classroom base, various small break-out rooms are available including a small computer room for study and homework. These bases are arranged around a larger central area and sound-proofed, foldable walls between areas mean that combinations of spaces are not only possible but quickly and easily achieved giving real adaptability.

But this is no imaginary or theoretical school: this is what I found when I went to see new school buildings in Norway.

Reassuringly, these new school buildings represented the physical realisation of clear educational ideas and philosophies: the importance of social groups and positive, supportive relationships; the emphasis on learning and teaching as opposed to subjects and content; the need for a variety of areas and spaces reflecting the range of activities and interactions in which pupils and teachers engage.

Of course the natural reaction to seeing such different schools is usually a pragmatic one: the differences reflect a different social and cultural context and therefore it would be impossible to transplant such ideas here in Scotland.

To some extent this is true: it is so very different. Risk, for example, is regarded as a natural part of life and indeed something to be learned.

Children are therefore encouraged to use the woods beside which the school has been built as an extension to the playground. We saw young people working outside at each school we visited even though it was April and quite cold. Pupils have tools and are allowed to build their own huts and structures to play in.

One part of me says they must be mad - another says we must have been mad to allow the assertion of individual "rights" within an increasingly litigious society to lead us to accept without question the institutionalised and absolute avoidance of risk which appears to have become a basic principle of learning. The detriment to society in general of this approach has been a significant shift of responsibility from the individual to society, the "powers that be" or the government.

Clearly, we cannot now turn back the clock, and it is likely that Norway may find itself in a similar position sooner or later - mebbe's aye, mebbe's naw as the footballer once said.

What we can emulate, however, from the Norwegian experience is the strong sense of design that gives these schools a feeling of spaciousness; a pleasant and inspiring atmosphere to work in; a well-considered and fit-for-purpose arrangement of spaces for learners and teachers to enjoy.

Nowhere did I get the impression of standardised boxes and long corridors which often epitomise many of our schools. I cannot imagine being accosted here by the archetypal SI boy in the first week of term - "Where am ah, sur?"

One school (SkAredalen Skole, near Haugesund) was very striking as every, angle, facade and elevation had clearly been "designed", capturing your attention and adding interest. We would never build a school like this because corners and angles are normally designed out to discourage vandalism.

Only one headteacher we met had concerns about vandalism. There had been an attempt to set fire to the school. However, the response from the parents was to take it in turns to watch over the school (this was not difficult because the school's facilities were extensively used outwith school hours).

This emphasis on "designed spaces" extended to staff facilities. I saw a number of very attractive staff rooms with art work and comfortable, tasteful furniture; in a separate area, individual workspaces for each member of staff; and rooms set up for meetings between staff and with the public. In one 6-16 school (Iglemyr Skole, near Sandnes), there was a whole wing dedicated to staff and their work and well-being. Staff rooms are sufficiently pleasant (and spacious) for staff social events to be held there.

A special school for up to 10 teenagers with emotional and behavioural difficulties had pupils building outhouses and sheds and their own traditional style boat. These young people often work unsupervised and the finished products reflected the sense of quality and craftsmanship that pervaded my stay in Norway.

Other examples include - classrooms with timber frame beams exposed under vaulted ceilings; real slate floors and staircases with inlaid copper and brass shapes and writing; vast sports halls with viewing galleries and additional "behind-the-wall" fold-away seating overlooked by a coffee shop and eating area and adjoined by a large games hall cum gym (the secondary head teacher of the biggest school in Aberdeen who was accompanying me was overcome with emotion at this point in the visit!); impressive entrance halls and performance spaces (in one case combined); extensive use of wood and other natural materials both outside and inside schools; and of course the furniture and the air.

The chairs looked as if they had been made for architects and draughtsmen.

Very adjustable and sturdy with somewhere to put your feet - and a 10 year guarantee.

Although many schools had mechanical ventilation, the most effective system appeared to be one where air is heated in spaces underneath the school then rises to replenish the used air which escapes through natural ventilation.

The school with this system reported real reductions in allergic and asthmatic problems, and the alleviation of conditions with breathing difficulties. This school had recently won an award for its innovative design and charged a fee for visits from all over the world.

More generally, Norway feels like the country that Scotland might have become.

The difference is they have invested in and continue to value their education system spending 4.9 per cent of their considerable gross domestic product on schools compared with 4 per cent in the UK.

And is there anything I do not think we should adopt here? Well, there was the school head who had no background in teaching but was formerly a top-level football coach. On the other hand, what possibilities might this bring about at the start of each new season - especially for directors'

posts? As they say, travel broadens the mind.

John Stodter Corporate director for learning and leisure in Aberdeen

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