From gloom and mould to a bright high-tech heaven

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Until three weeks ago, Nicole Abley was teaching in what she describes as "a house of horrors".

It was, to be more precise, a portable building that had somehow survived from the 1970s until 2007. Squeezed into this breezeblock construction were Nicole's media studies classroom, the children's services office and the sixth form common room. When her pupils got bored, they could always watch the sixth formers playing darts.

The classroom had a sink, a blackboard, holes in the walls and no computers. The heating didn't work properly, ranging from violently hot (sweaty pupils) to freezing cold (sweaty windows).

"I brought a little cloth in from home to get the mould off the windows,"

says Nicole. "I can laugh now but I did cry frequently."

There is certainly no need for tears now. For the past two weeks, Nicole and her pupils at the John Madejski Academy in Reading have been working in bright, airy splendour. The school's new, two-level media centre has white walls, proper ventilation and sound insulation, underfloor heating and a suite of 20 iMACs.

In their new surroundings, pupils are so focused and self-motivated that Nicole can chat to The TES on the telephone while they carry on learning - in this case, taking pictures of themselves for their own websites.

The biggest difference, she says, has been made by the suite of iMACs and by the smartboard, enabling her to download lessons in advance.

The media centre occupies the nose of one of four triangular "pods" that form the heart of the new academy, with a meandering, covered walkway linking them. Now the gloomy hotch-potch of post-war buildings inherited from Thamesbridge School will be demolished to make way for a new sports hall and pitches. The pound;27 million project should be complete by November.

Designed by award-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre (think Gateshead Millennium Bridge) it is the first "exemplar" secondary school to be built under the Government's Building Schools for the Future initiative.

Stafford Critchlow, the lead architect, says the aim of the "pods" is to create smaller environments within a large school. Each can be used as a pastoral base as well as housing a large area of the curriculum (such as maths and science) so that pupils will not need to move around the school between every lesson.

There are no corridors and the staff base in each pod, where teachers can "hot-desk," is directly above the central space where pupils have their lockers and benches, so they can be passively observed. Research suggested this might be too much openness for some teachers so there is also an enclosed staff development area in one pod, complete with easy chairs and a kitchen.

Pupils' behaviour has already improved, even while the new buildings have been going up. Some now enjoy helping their teachers get to grips with the technology.

Above all, Nicole says, the pupils have realised that people think it's worth investing time and money in them. "In the Witley area, that hasn't happened before."

Truancy at the school - historically high, although falling since last year - has been "minimal" since the move into the new buildings. A lot of the pupils were there at 7.30 on the first morning after half term, reports Nicole. Many ask to use the computers at break times and it is no longer seen as "alien" to stay behind at school and work. And, with the effective blinds in the new building, she no longer needs to pray for dark before showing a film.

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