Sustainability is the watchword in new classrooms being built. Gerald Haigh gets a glimpse of the schools of the future
What's the first thing you look for when you're buying a new car? Why, the number and quality of the drinks holders, of course. Apparently it's a bit like that with classrooms, too.
"It's little things that impress you, like places for children to put their drinks," says Iain McLeish, head of Wrockwardine Wood Church of England juniors, one of two Telford and Wrekin schools chosen by Whitehall to experiment with its classroom of the future project.
What Mr McLeish is underlining is that a project like this is not just about interactive whiteboards and internet connections. All the information technology you would expect has to be there, especially in an authority that is leading the country in terms of broadband connections, but, he says, there are other priorities.
"It's important that the space provides the sort of flexibility that teachers would love but can't always achieve - the ability to organise the classroom according to the activity."
Although there's significant input to this project from the IT experts - the other Telford school, Lord Silkin school, an 11-to-16 comprehensive, is looking forward to having video conferencing - there's also lots of imaginative thinking about the building and the use of space. Each of the teaching blocks - constructed largely off-site at the factory of Yorkon, modular building specialists - embodies up-to-date thinking about energy conservation, with insulation, solar panels and a wind-driven generator.
Jane Woodall, head of The Lord Silkin School, is keen on this aspect, because her school already focuses heavily on energy saving. "We want to compare the way the new classroom uses energy with the measures we've already put in," she says. "This'll give us lots of data to use in the curriculum, in science and maths for example." It should also be an amenity for a local community in need of some good news.
Inside, the emphasis is on flexibility. Counties Furniture Group (CFG) have provided tray units that can be fitted together in many different ways, and chairs and tables that don't only adjust for height to cover everyone from five year-olds to adults in evening meetings, but are easy to move around.
"The tables are individual - one for each child - and the tops are shaped so they can move into various configurations: groups of different numbers, or circles", says Marc Davies, senior designer at CFG. "And each table has a wheel, so children can pick it up and move it around easily."
All involved - authority, children, teachers - are keen on the principle of sustainability. CFG has used some interesting materials. The table tops are made from recycled plastic washing up bottles, for example, and the tops of the tray units are recycled crisp packets. The crisp packets produce an attractive marbled effect and both the primary and secondary children are in favour of the bright colours that the new materials make possible.
Maintaining flexibility of layout is difficult when there's information technology around, with associated cables and power points. The answer here is provided by "data totems" - desk-height pillars bringing the necessary services to the point of use. The totems themselves are linked by cable to points in the floor so they are free to move within a limited circle.
The classrooms will be on site and come fully into use in the Spring, open to other schools, too, because they are local authority projects. Both heads will investigate just how the buildings can be used for learning across the curriculum.
At The Lord Silkin School, Jane Woodall sees the classroom as an adjunct to her school's bid to be a specialist business and enterprise college.
"It'll be a place where our students and people from business and commerce can work together in an environment that doesn't feel like an ordinary secondary school," she says.
And at Wrockwardine, Iain McLeish is clearly eager to get started and to see teachers and children trying different ways of organising for learning.
"We're excited about it," he says. "We'll be educating each group that goes in there, showing them what to do, varying the way we use it to find what's possible, and building up new habits."