Not just another brick in the wall

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Design Council urges pupils to rate their school buildings. Graeme Paton and Michael Shaw report.

Schools have come a long way from the Victorian stereotype of a teacher, armed with chalk and blackboard, standing before tight rows of wooden desks.

Today children are being taught in schools ranging from the rustic simplicity of a single straw room to circular classrooms packed with the latest technology.

Now the Design Council is hoping to generate debate with the launch next month of a website,

It will encourage pupils to rate school buildings and give teachers and governors design ideas. It is hoped these will be incorporated into the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme, the pound;2 billion-a-year drive to rebuild or refurbish all secondaries and half of primaries.

Richard Eisermann, director of design and innovation at the Design Council, urged all schools to use the opportunity to create exciting designs.

"As long as we pack our students into classrooms like sardines, that's what we are going to get when they come out of the classroom: people who think like sardines," he told a conference this summer.

The website will allow pupils and teachers to highlight where their school's inadequacies lie.

One of the most unusual school buildings is in Suffolk where from this month children are being taught in a 6m by 12m classroom made out of straw bales.

Nine pupils, aged four to 12, are to be taught by a group of parents known as the Wild Meadows Learning Group who have decided to home-educate their children.

The building, in the grounds of Ringsfield Hall near Beccles, is being weatherproofed and fitted with a roof, so it can be used all year round.

The bales are secured with hazel spikes and the foundations are made of tyres and rocks.

Adults and children and Ringsfield Hall Trust, which runs the 14-acre ecological education centre on the site, worked together to build the Pounds 5,000 classroom.

It is hoped that the one-room building which is powered by electricity will eventually have solar panels, a wind turbine and composting toilet.

Chris Walton, director of the trust, said: "We were going to build a straw-bale barn to show what a fully sustainable building looks like. But when we were approached by local parents who wanted to teach their own children here, we thought: why not turn it into a classroom instead?"

But with cutting-edge designs come teething problems. St Margaret's high, in the Toxteth district of Liverpool, was the first in the country to install a 360-degree classroom. Teachers can circle pupils at the back of the room on a curved "racetrack", occasionally taking to a podium in the centre of the class.

Whiteboards, fitted on the back wall, can be viewed by pupils as they turn their swivel chairs in the opposite direction. The temperature and light are computer-controlled, shutters can be used as video projection screens and mirrors mounted at strategic points can act as eyes in the back of the teachers' head.

John Wilkinson, assistant head, said pupils had been enthusiastic about the classroom but admitted that there had been difficulties.

He said: "The room was too small for all the groups that wanted to use it, and there have been problems with ventilation. But it has been an instructive experiment and the pupils like the technology."

The Government has already indicated that more standardised designs would be used for the construction of academies, state schools independent of local council control. The move follows complaints that some of academiesJ- which can cost up to twice as much as the average secondary - are a waste of money and are unfit for pupils' needs.

This week delegates at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton said the use of Private Finance Initiative deals to fund part of the programme would leave jobs under threat, as private companies seek to cut costs.

More sustainable schools in Down to Earth supplement

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