Making an entrance
You never get a second chance to make a first impression," so the saying goes. Yet schools often ignore this vital piece of advice when it comes to their own reception areas.
As the most publicly visible part of the building, it is essential that entrance halls send out the right message.
Get it wrong and parents will shun the school almost without knowing why, teachers will become demoralised, and pupils more prone to misbehaviour, says Jane Anderson, who advises schools in Gateshead on how they can improve their environment.
Get it right, and people will be drawn to the school, confident that its positive ethos is consistent right across the board.
As one anonymous secondary teacher comments: "If a school can't be bothered to do a little dressing up to welcome guests and pupils, then it says a lot about the pride in the place and quality of education.
"Every time I've been to a school with messy grounds or an unwelcoming reception area, I have been far from impressed by the education I have witnessed."
Jane agrees that the entrance is one of the most important areas. "I see a lot of schools where money has been spent on the main entrance for visitors, while the staff and pupil entrances are absolutely vile. But they should be equally important because they have a huge impact on morale and health."
The outside of a school is as important as what takes place inside, she says. "People make judgement calls from the front gate or even the roadside. As they walk or drive past, is the gate open and welcoming, is the school sign covered in graffiti, or the grass brown and full of weeds? It all counts towards the first impression."
One school that can say with some confidence that its exterior makes a sizable impression is Westminster Academy in west London - protruding from the grey Harrow Road like a burst of lime. Its green and yellow frame is fresh and funky, and more like the headquarters of a big swanky company than a school.
And that is the point, says Alison Banks, the headteacher. As an international business and enterprise academy, it aims to promote a smart, business-like front to its multicultural pupils, who come from 65 countries and speak 34 different languages.
Internationalism is a theme that is in evidence from the moment you arrive. The automatic glass doors slide open - without security - to an initial reception area where parents can wait for their children out of the cold and noise of inner London. There, they are greeted by the word "welcome" in seven languages, plus a member of staff who either offers them a seat or guides them into the internal reception.
Sitting at one end of the open atrium, this in-house reception - a 30-foot canary yellow desk manned by staff and pupils, with large vases of flowers and plasma TVs - reinforces the message that the academy means business.
"It has the wow factor," says Alison. Facing the reception is a sea of vibrant greens and yellows, from the sound absorbing baffles on the glazed glass roof to the giant graphics along the walls, espousing "enterprise" and "global citizenship". The visitor has a clear view of the three-storey staircase from the entrance, plus the glass library, lecture hall, cafe and multi-functional "long room", complete with images of landmark buildings from around the world.
"We're crammed between the Harrow Road, the A40 and a busy railway, with grey buildings all around and the security issues inherent in an area like this," says Alison. "But we wanted the school to be bright, refreshing and welcoming while still being secure, and I think the architects have achieved that."
Clearly, the British Council for School Environments (BCSE) agrees. It named Westminster Academy the most inspiring UK secondary school in its inaugural awards for best design earlier this year.
Keith Snook from the Royal Institute of British Architects and a judge on the BCSE panel, says receptions demand careful consideration. "Entrances are the most interactive part of the school building," he says. "They need to speak to parents just as much as their children and tell them that this is a safe, friendly and comfortable environment to be in."
However, this can be difficult when seemingly contradictory requirements must be met. "Balancing issues such as security with the practicality of getting large numbers in out of the rain isn't always easy, especially if there's limited space."
Greenside Primary School in Gateshead, built at the start of the 20th century, today struggles with the demands of modern pupils. When Dawn Foster took over as head in January last year, the school was in special measures. She decided to focus on behaviour and the school environment to help turn it around.
The first thing visitors used to see when they arrived at the school was the men's toilets. Now a glass screen distracts the eye, plasma TVs - showing images and information from around the school - have been erected, and dilapidated old chairs have been replaced with new seats arranged around tables and potted plants. "Now parents want to come inside, which they never used to do," says Dawn. "It certainly lifts the mood."
Other things the school is mindful of reducing is the pile of notices pinned up in reception. Jane advises schools to use the same font, logo and colour for displays, and to avoid too many "Do not" signs that lend an air of negativity.
The reception should cater for all five senses. "So often you get a good visual but there's a musty smell of school dinners," Jane says. "Touch is also overlooked: plastic chairs will often get people hot and irritable in summer, while a loud radio or TV can diminish the sense of calm. You are stepping over a threshold when you enter a reception area and, like any threshold, the experience should be uplifting for all visitors."
FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT
- Tell visitors in advance about parking arrangements.
- Make sure reception is easy to find wherever you enter the school grounds. If visitors have to call for directions from the car park, you need clearer signs.
- Brief pupils and adults about what to do if visitors look lost.
- Ensure visitors are let in promptly if there is a buzzer on the outside door.
- Consider keeping the outside door unlocked, with security starting further in. This is common among businesses and allows visitors in quickly. It is also more welcoming.
- How wheelchair-friendly is the reception, including the reception window? Ensure reception is always staffed and welcoming.
- Offer visitors a seat, a drink and keep them updated about when their contact is ready.
- Ensure the waiting area is smart and comfortable, with reading material and displays