A hi-tech space that shuns traditional classroom constraints has improved pupils' behaviour in a west London school. William Stewart reports
From the outside it looks like somewhere the Teletubbies would live, while its interior has the feel of a Big Brother house. But the Ingenium in Richmond-upon-Thames is a serious experiment in education which is wowing pupils and teachers.
The shiny white structure, sited in the wooded grounds of Greycourt school, is being used as a test bed for staff at the comprehensive who want to pep up their lessons and try out new ideas.
As you would expect from such a futuristic-looking building, it includes plenty of technological innovations. An environmentally-friendly ventilation system uses carbon dioxide sensors to wake pupils up with blasts of fresh air as soon as the room gets stuffy. Lessons can also be enhanced with a booming surround-sound system and a huge computer and film projection screen. But the hi-tech equipment does not take centre stage.
Laptops and other devices are stowed out of sight until they are needed.
Peter Cowley, the council's ICT adviser who manages the building, said: "We have focused on learning rather than on the technology. So rather than looking like a computer lab, this is an airy, colourful space."
The working area of the Ingenium is the same size as a standard classroom, but feels much bigger. Four colour-coded alcoves, with bench seating for 32 pupils with lockers for their bags underneath, run round the edge of the room. Teachers can use a central control panel to turn up the lights or play music in a particular alcove, each of which has a large whiteboard for pupils to write on. This leaves most of the space free, giving the class the flexibility to arrange furniture to suit their learning. En suite toilets prevent the disruption of pupils constantly asking to leave the room.
Rachel Jones, the head, said: "The physical environment is very important when you think about things that make an impact on learning. Conventionally you get into a classroom and children sit in rows. We put adolescents in boxes when they want to move around."
Sharmila Kalvani, a science teacher, says the Ingenium provides the solution. "It allows a lot of freedom of movement and thinking because it is a much more relaxed environment," she said. "They tend to behave much better."
The views of pupils at Greycourt, and a neighbouring primary and special school, have been at the centre of the scheme since it began in 2004 as part of the Government's pound;13 million classroom-of-the-future project, which involved 12 LEAs.
Pupils came up with the Ingenium tag, and decided they did not want any right angles. Future Systems, the architects, used curves reminiscent of their Lord's Cricket Ground media centre, nicknamed "Cherie Blair's mouth".
The moulded fibreglass structure is based on a boat hull and had to be transported to the site in two parts.
The project cost around pound;1.5m. But that figure included a second classroom for the primary, and research and development costs. The authority believes it could now replicate it elsewhere for a fraction of that cost.