Some schools are blessed with fantastic modern buildings that are designed to maximise learning potential. For the most part, though, schools have to make do with disjointed, often substandard premises that can be detrimental to education.
Bringing these old constructions back to life is generally seen as an impossible task - there simply isn't enough cash for the crucial work. However, in reality, there are plenty of ways for schools to enhance their environments cheaply. Here are just four of the many areas you can address.
Acoustic design may seem like a dark art, but there are simple ways to check your classroom's performance. Download a decibel app to your smartphone and measure the noise levels during class. If the readings frequently peak at 65dB or above, consider the following ideas to optimise the acoustics and create a more productive environment.
l Line the walls with large display panels. These can be made from MDF with a cork face, finished in felt. Cork has very good acoustic properties and the panels can double as pinboards for displays.
l Cover hard flooring with carpet and underlay.
l Place acoustic panels on the ceiling to allow lofty classrooms to retain their sense of space.
l Consider installing acoustic wall panels where display space is not required. These should be applied to the front or back walls of the classroom, not the sides.
Help to maintain the energy and vitality of a classroom with an effective lighting strategy.
l Plan the main fittings to provide an even distribution of light across working surfaces.
l Consider a secondary set of light fittings to highlight special activity areas or display walls.
l Position lights so that they do not cause glare or shadows, making the light source as inconspicuous as possible.
l Remember that excessive light contrast across adjacent areas can lead to eye strain and headaches.
Typical school classrooms have a lot of glazing. Although this is good for natural light, it can lead to overheating in the summer and excessive heat loss in the winter.
If a classroom is too hot, natural ventilation is often the most practical solution. Vents can be added; some should be positioned up high to allow the air to mix before it circulates to working level.
Alternatively, ventilation panels can be sized and retrofitted into existing window openings to improve ventilation. There are several options to consider, depending on the budget and environmental requirements of the room.
l The simplest and cheapest solution is to fit ventilation panels into existing windows that open at a high level.
l Secure ventilation panels can remain open overnight in the summer so that classrooms are cool and comfortable for the following morning. Schools built with a high thermal mass (that is, those made from lots of concrete and brick) may benefit from this kind of night-time ventilation.
l Some ventilation panels have an insulated door on the inside, which helps to retain heat when they are closed in winter.
l If noise from outside is an issue, ventilation panels can be fitted with acoustic louvres to reduce this problem.
Colour has a direct relationship with energy use: black materials absorb 20 times more natural light energy than white ones and gain heat in the process. And we all know that light colours generally make a room look bigger, while dark colours make it look smaller. Colour choice also plays a significant role in the psychological balance of a classroom environment.
l White is too harsh. Instead, use near-white paints that are much gentler on the eye and complement lighting strategies.
l The main surfaces, walls and ceiling of the classroom should be a light or near-white colour. This will ensure that the room feels calm.
l Blue is a good learning colour. Strong blues can help to focus the mind, while soft blues aid concentration. The optimum colour scheme for learning might be a dominant blue with a secondary yellow, or the other way round for variation.
l Try to avoid painting entire classrooms in just one colour. We all need a little balance in our lives.
So, before you write your building off or start planning a complete refurbishment, give these affordable strategies a try. Start with these four areas and take it from there.
Phil Wells is the director of DesignBox Architecture
Why acoustic "dead spots" could be hampering learning.
Inside the schools that have said goodbye to white walls.