Designed for learning

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Banging your head against a partition wall, trying to get out of horrible portable classrooms with no space to swing a cat? Biddy Passmore reports on the difference the right building can make

Which kind of school building is best for teaching and learning? And which is worst? It is not hard to find out what teachers don't like about the environment in which many of them teach. A question in the TES online staffroom produced a litany of hardship: blazing heat, freezing cold, dazzling light, Stygian gloom, peeling andor paper-thin walls - and too little space to swing a cat, let alone a pupil.

These complaints mostly centre on buildings from the bad old days. In school building terms, that's not so much Victorian (they were built to last and are worth refurbishing) as the period from the 1950s to 1970s, when many tacky buildings went up that were not expected to stay up for long.

But what buildings do teachers actually like working in? Posters on the TES website were silent about aspects they liked. And what kind of structures would teachers like to see emerging from the Prime Minister's pound;2.2 billion-a-year programme to transform the future of education? The question is urgent as there are signs that some recent "showcase" projects may have looked good but had fundamental design flaws. And one of the main reasons for these early failures, say experts, is that the designs were rushed through without consulting the people who were going to work in them.

Last year, an audit of recently built schools by Cabe, the Government's buildings watchdog, found the design of half of them was either "poor" or "mediocre" (although there were signs things were improving). Its audit found: a school with corridors so narrow it introduced a one-way system a school with a central atrium whose ventilation ducts led into the surrounding classrooms, which meant that the noise from the atrium passed into the classrooms with the cool air a school where the library had no windows a school built with L-shaped classrooms that teachers did not want.

Sarah Hill, head of research at the British Council for School Environments, agrees that consultation is vital. "Often staff are only asked whether they want pink or blue walls," she says. But, while teachers are clear they want something "bright", she says they often find it difficult to imagine a school for the future.

"They've had to put up with terrible conditions for so long that their main priority is a classroom that doesn't leak," she told The TES.

To provide a fuller picture of teachers' views on school buildings, the council -a membership body that enables schools, local authorities, architects and the construction industry to share good practice - is to conduct a national poll in June. It already has information about one vital factor: what children think about school buildings. An online poll by School Works, the council's commercial arm, found they wanted brighter colours, better maintenance and no bad smells.

But above all these, they wanted light, unthreatening (and covered) social spaces where they could circulate and meet their friends: an end to the dark, cramped corridors, playgrounds, canteens and toilets that can cause tempers to spark and allow bullying to flourish.

Narrow corridors were the great problem at Kingsdale School in Southwark, the largest single site school in London. Ninety per cent of the incidents of bad behaviour in the school used to happen in the corridors, says Steve Morrison, headteacher.

"The corridors were 5ft 3in wide," he says. "You could touch the walls on both sides and they were long and quite dark. It was just impossible to manage movement around the school. We reckoned we were losing about an hour a day of teaching - that's about a day a week - because of poor design.

Other problems included lack of covered space for pupils during wet break times and a dining room so small it could accommodate only 100 pupils at a time (the school has 1,150). As a result, many pupils left the school at lunchtime and did not return.

The solution? The creation of a mixture of classrooms - some huge and flexible, others small and traditional, with much internal use of glass.

And, at the centre of it all, the largest covered inner courtyard in any school in England. "It's a multi-functional space and it works," says Steve. "It has the same impact as a cathedral, suppressing a natural instinct to be loud. The size of the atrium and pupils' awareness that they're being passively observed has made behaviour improve by leaps and bounds."

Before the refurbishment started in 1998, Kingsdale was always at the bottom of the Southwark league. Since it started, it has been the top performing community school in four out of five years


The impact of school environments: a literature review for the Design Council (http:tinyurl.comjrmvq)


The British Council for School Environments (BCSE),Jin partnership with the Teacher Support Network, is conducting a poll of teachers'Jviews of their school buildings. The results will be published during National School Environments Week, June 25 to 30. To participate, visit

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