Creative places are changing spaces

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
When I started, there was one typewriter, a teacher's old desk, and bits of classroom furniture filled with old forms and correspondence." Many longer-serving teachers will recognise the description, by Sybil Collings, head of St Andrew's GM Primary in North Weald, of a school office in pre-local management days. Now though, North Weald's office is home to an administrator and two clerical assistants, and there are three networked computers as well as an array of filing cabinets, smart desks and purpose-built seating.

All schools have had to look at their office arrangements in recent years. Even the many heads and governors who are reluctant to spend money on administration have had to consider how to accommodate an office computer, a decision with inevitable further effects on desk space, storage and seating.

There have been other pressures, too. Worries about security have led schools to look at giving the office a sightline to the school entrance, and control over it. And there is a greater awareness of the need to be welcoming to parents and other visitors.

Gradually there has grown in the minds of many heads an idea of what the ideal school office should look like - an adequate space, efficiently used, attractively furnished and decorated. It should provide a good working environment for hard-pressed administrative staff - and, importantly with the growth of competition for pupils, it should give the school a well made-up public face.

This, essentially, was the vision formed by Eddie Woods when he became head of Walton Junior School in Peterborough two years ago: "I saw the pressure the secretary was working under. We needed an efficient and effective office. And I was concerned about the security of the pupils and the staff. It was clear we should move the office to the main entrance."

The only sensible choice was to use a rectangular books and reading area close to the main door. It needed only a partition and a door to make a room about twice the size of the original office. The biggest building job was to put in a reception hatch, looking out into the main hallway. Visitors now have to identify themselves at the hatch before the secretary presses a button releasing the lock on the inner door into the school. A coded security lock enables staff to use it without bothering the secretary.

The room has two crescent-shaped light oak workstations which provide a desk surface, and then curve round to give space for computer equipment. Different-shaped units can be married up to them. There was, though, a deliberate delay before these were installed. Julie Bryant, Walton's secretary, wanted "to take time to see exactly what was needed".

The new office is by no means lavishly equipped - there are two new four-drawer filing cabinets and a couple of tall storage cupboards. The original carpets remain, and there are blinds at the one external window. The total cost, Eddie Woods reckons, including alterations to the electrical and telephone supplies and decoration, was in the region of Pounds 5,000.

But the difficulty of assessing the real cost of this kind of work is exemplified by the Walton project. Nobody was entirely happy about the idea of the reading area - a valued teaching resource used particularly for special needs work - being annexed by the administration. So space and money were found to convert a children's cloakroom into a new library. The lost cloakroom, in turn, was rehoused in what had been a store room.

The efficient use of school space has as much to do with relationships and school aims as it has with the measurement of floor area.

The Walton project, apart from the fact that the office was moved from one part of the school to another, was relatively modest. There are much more radical approaches.

Kilmorie Primary in Lewisham now has just one open-plan office area for the head, deputy and administrator. Peter Webb, the school administrator, explains: "The school management decided that they wanted something more open - conceptually as well as physically. Anyone can come in and use the networked system, including parents doing work for the school."

Now, instead of separate offices, Kilmorie has an open-fronted area off the entrance hall, with four desks in it. Three small rooms to the side are used for private interviews or conferences.

Headteacher David Morris and colleagues wanted a more open school, easier for parents to visit, and greater access for teachers to the school's information systems. The four computers in the admin area are in constant use by teachers as well as by the head, deputy and administrator.

Not many heads would give up a personal office. David Morris, however, doesn't want "to be shut in a box. I'm much more aware now of what's happening". When he wants privacy for interviews or quiet work, he can use one of the three conference rooms which are also available for other colleagues and outside advisers such as the educational psychologist.

The whole project at Kilmorie, including building work, cost about Pounds 17,000. "It's a lot to spend on the office," admits David Morris, "but we had saved for it from our budget over four years."

He acknowledges some disadvantages - "much more business for the office staff for one thing". Peter Webb feels that the most obvious problem is the loss of quiet, concentrated working time. "I hadn't expected the amount of disturbance when a child comes with problems and is emotional. Work virtually shuts down then."

Julie Bryant at Walton Junior finds that being a secretary with a "serving hatch" to the outside world, and being visible behind a glass partition at the centre of the school's operations, she is increasingly distracted: "There might be somebody coming in the office, somebody at the hatch and the phone ringing. "

The effect is enhanced by changes in the secretarial task itself. Local management, for example, has brought the periodic need for concentrated work on the school accounts. Peter Webb copes with this at Kilmorie by booking one of the small conference rooms: "I bring my computer from home." Walton's Eddie Woods believes heads should realise that a more open approach creates this tension and try to increase secretarial time.

Peter Webb feels that schools still have things to learn about office systems. A lot of the procedures are not written down. School filing systems often depend on everyone knowing where things are. The education system has to plan for continuity when people come and go. Schools are going to start getting people who are moving from job to job."

One answer, he says, is visibility. "Easily accessible - a very visual system. We have a metre of blue ring-binders, carefully labelled". The aim is a filing system that can be understood by anyone who comes into the office.

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