Changing rooms

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Schools may yearn for a complete rebuild, but a new project is demonstrating just how much a lick of paint and a few comfy chairs can do to transform the built environment and raise the morale of pupils and teachers. And the cost to your coffers? Nothing, as Hannah Frankel reports

Plymouth Grove Primary School is a formidable-looking Victorian building. Three storeys high and blood-red brickwork, it has towered over pupils in inner-city Manchester for more than 100 years.

"Solid" is the word Mike Cooke, the headteacher, uses to describe it. But inside it is a different story. Paint is peeling off the brick and water damage is spreading ominously across the walls and carpet. That's not to mention the heating and drainage problems.

"The building is a challenge," admits Mr Cooke. "I would love this school to be part of the community for another 100 years, but at the moment it is not fit for the 21st century."

As a primary school, Plymouth Grove did not have access to the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) funding for full or even partial re-build. Instead, it tapped into a far less costly or intrusive refurbishment. Over the course of three days, it transformed two rooms. The cost? Absolutely nothing.

The re-vamp came courtesy of the Big School Makeover, a new project set up and run by the British Council for School Environments (BCSE), which offers support and guidance to schools that want to spruce up their environment.

Even small tweaks can have a sizable impact on everything from behaviour to the success of the whole school, says Ty Goddard, chief executive of the BCSE. He sees the school environment sitting right alongside teachers and support staff in terms of importance - capable of making a significant difference to teaching and learning.

There is plenty of evidence to support this view. An evaluation of the BSF project last year found that pupils who are taught in "light, airy classrooms" with decent furniture and access to good outside spaces and toilets learn better - and are happier - at school.

Pupils at Bristol Brunel Academy have reported feeling safer and prouder in their new building, according to a recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research. And other schools say that good design saves them money - for example, a re-designed playground that requires fewer lunchtime supervisors.

To illustrate just how much can be achieved in a short time, the BCSE made-over five schools across England during the course of two weeks last month. Following consultations between architects, pupils and staff, workers from the project's two partners - Willmott Dixon construction and Dulux Trade paint - spent two to three days transforming designated spaces for free.

At Plymouth Grove, the results have been spectacular. Out of all the quirky little rooms in the school, Mr Cooke decided to focus on the cloakroom and a storage room. "The pupils described the cloakroom as dark, dingy and creepy," says Mr Cooke. "They felt vulnerable just going in there."

Maybe that was why they visited it so infrequently - the room was used for just 30 minutes a day, when pupils picked up and dropped off their coats on the iron hooks.

In three days, the cloakroom morphed into a bright, vibrant library, complete with a 42-inch flatscreen TV, comfortable chairs, interlocking, curvy desks and colourful beanbags and pouffes - all donated by local suppliers.

A publishing house contributed books; an electrical store followed suit with all the lights. Meanwhile, art students from the local sixth form college helped to paint a wide rainbow across the walls and ceiling - an idea generated by the pupils.

The children can now be found curled up in the new library at break times, reading quietly. Their coats are neatly stored away in lockers lining the corridor, where the book-filled shelves used to be.

In another corner of the school, the storage room was nothing more than a cluttered dumping ground with water damage along the walls and ceiling. A fresh lick of paint later and it has become a flexible learning space for small groups of pupils. There is a mural on the wall, wireless broadband, a sink and smart round tables and chairs.

"It is a clean, professional environment now," says Mr Cooke. "Teachers are booking it up as a break-out space for every subject. It has added an enormous amount of value to the school."

When the pupils finally saw the rooms, bursting through the sugar paper screens that covered the doorways, all you could hear were gasps of delight and wonder. A special assembly was held for all those who had helped out - 45 came, and there was a special appearance by the Dulux dog. The pupils sang songs and presented the volunteers with thank you letters and cards. One banner read: "Thank you for doing my school up."

Andre Witter from Willmott Dixon, said: "We do a lot of work for the council so it was nice to give a bit back. People told me after the assembly that they felt set up for the day."

This feel-good factor spread beyond the original remit of the two made- over rooms. While they were there, the volunteers painted the front door and erected some signage. Mr Cooke's own parents planted raised flower- beds outside the reception area.

And the success has prompted further improvements. Since the makeover, the outside toilets have been converted into a community room with kitchen facilities, and there are plans to create an outside canopied cafe area where parents can mingle and relax when picking up their children.

But that is just the beginning. Mr Cooke has a long list of what he wants to do next, starting with carpets to cover the creaking floorboards in the classrooms and a new roof for the outside nursery. "The changes have had such a massive impact," he says. "It has made us all realise how much can be done even without professional help."

Teachers have also been inspired. Colourful displays have started cropping up everywhere and the ICT suite has been reorganised to make it more user- friendly and inviting.

But at the heart of all the improvements is pupil voice, insists Mr Cooke. "For me, that is the key," he says. "It is their space and it is important that they have a sense of ownership."

Ty Goddard agrees. He welcomes the Government's investment in school buildings, but believes that heads should mobilise pupils' ideas and suggestions during what is often a long procurement process.

"People can change their environment right now over just a couple of days," he says. "We want them to cherish their school environment and think more profoundly about what small changes they can bring about."

Portslade Community College in Brighton has also done just that. The college currently has a notice to improve, but Stuart McLaughlin, the new principal, wanted to use the physical environment to prove to pupils and parents that things are changing for the better.

Under the Big School Makeover programme, he decided to tackle the offshoot dining room that is connected to the canteen. From a drab, uninspiring space, it was transformed over the course of three days into a bustling social area. There is an internet cafe complete with tall stools and Costa-style leather sofas at one end. The rest of the hall consists of circular tables, smart chairs and brightly coloured pouffes. "It has always been called The Oasis, which used to be rather ironic," says Mr McLaughlin. "We kept the name and that guided the re-design."

There is a tropical feel to it now, with a massive vinyl of luscious green grass on the end wall and pupils' painted canvasses hung on the side walls. "I want the community to be proud of this college," says Mr McLaughlin. "The feedback I have had is that it feels like we are changing for the better and some of that change is very visible."

The Big School Makeover is being rolled out nationally. Since its launch at the beginning of October, 63 schools have registered an interest. The BCSE can't promise to work directly with every school looking to refresh or refurbish an area, but it will provide tips, advice, support and links to professional bodies.

Those involved insist that money and expertise is not what this project is about. "It is not beyond the realms of possibility for schools on very tight budgets to make really significant changes themselves," says Jenny Thomas, head of research and policy at the BCSE, who project managed the makeover programme at the five pilot schools.

"Most costs are usually incurred by people doing the work but we found an enormous amount of goodwill from volunteers. Artists, architects, companies and parents were all willing to lend a hand or donate furniture when we or the school approached them."

Earlier, one-off school makeovers are still reaping the benefits of tapping into this local goodwill. Two years ago, Liscard Primary School in the Wirral transformed its staffroom with the help of the BCSE and its community. Having looked like a tired "1970s care home", according to Mr Goddard, it now resembles a fashionable bistro. Morale, outlook and motivation have all improved as a direct result.

And last year, another school was targeted, this time Southfield Primary School in Ealing, west London. The makeover of the dining room alone helped school meal uptake increase by 40 per cent.

The Big School Makeover now aims to build on these early, formative successes. With its support, it hopes every school can improve its environment. It may not involve knocking down walls or creating that longed-for school extension, but it is adamant that even small changes can and will make a big difference.


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